Thursday, June 17, 2010

Your last name contains invalid characters

My last name is "Graham-Cumming". But here's a typical form response when I enter it:

Does the web site have any idea how rude it is to claim that my last name contains invalid characters? Clearly not. What they actually meant is: our web site will not accept that hyphen in your last name. But do they say that? No, of course not. They decide to shove in my face the claim that there's something wrong with my name.

There's nothing wrong with my name, just as there's nothing wrong with someone whose first name is Jean-Marie, or someone whose last name is O'Reilly.

What is wrong is that way this is being handled. If the system can't cope with non-letters and spaces it needs to say that. How about the following error message:

Our system is unable to process last names that contain non-letters, please replace them with spaces.

Don't blame me for having a last name that your system doesn't like, whose fault is that? Saying "Your last name contains invalid characters" is plain offensive. And I'm quite used to the situation that computer systems don't like the hyphen. On every flight I've ever been on I've been JOHN GRAHAMCUMMING.

The first time this happened the woman at the check-in counter did not say (in a robotic voice): "Your last name contains invalid characters", she actually said "I'm sorry, our system can't accept the hyphen". Fair enough.

So, form designers: stop blaming the user for your inadequacies.

PS Would accepting the hyphen actually destroy your database?

AOL sort of gets this right, although it claims it'll accepts numbers in a last name which, in fact, it won't:

Yahoo oddly believes that I don't know how to type my own name and decides to lowercase the C in Cumming. It's willing to accept the hyphen but not that I know who I am.

PPS Think of it this way; if I'm entering my name I'm probably signing up for your service. Do you really want part of my sign-up experience to be that you tell me that my name is invalid?


Robin said...

No, it wouldn't and every system I've designed allows any characters. You could write your name as "'';ae'wra'we'r;'er;'w''rawer'awe'r'a''fdsaf#'asd#'asg#aאידאידsd##''23;23'" and my system would accept it.

Who am I to judge?

Hayden said...

Change your name. Not that big of a deal.

alfil said...

I share your pain. Many systems would not allow hyphen or spaces. Barclaycard, for example, writes my last name as RAMOSALVAREZ.

Some airlines have the same problem, which complicates passport identification (as the passport would have the hyphen but not the ticket).

Probably I should check with Barclaycard if they have corrected this problem by now.

In a similar same category, many sites would not accept email addresses that contain + (plus sign)in the username part, which is perfectly valid.

alfil said...

I share your pain. Many systems would not allow hyphen or spaces. Barclaycard, for example, writes my last name as RAMOSALVAREZ.

Some airlines have the same problem, which complicates passport identification (as the passport would have the hyphen but not the ticket).

Probably I should check with Barclaycard if they have corrected this problem by now.

In a similar same category, many sites would not accept email addresses that contain + (plus sign)in the username part, which is perfectly valid.

Andrew said...

Hey, thats a great problem! My name is Green-Hummer....

Andrew said...

Hey, thats a great problem! My name is Green-Hummer.... said...

Lots of sites don't even handle letters properly. The å in my surname is a perfectly valid letter, thankyouverymuch! said...

I once went into my Japanese bank, after an absence of a few years, to try to find my account details - I'd forgotten the account number and didn't have the passbook to hand.

After making me wait for literally an hour the clerks came back to me looking very sheepish and said "We've found your account. The problem was that you wrote your surname on your form in upper and lower case letters, and it was stored on our system using upper case letters."

tag said...

The google ads on your page suggest:

Change of Name Deed
Advice from UK Deed Poll Service about changing your legal name.

£10 Name Change Deed Poll
Approved-Format Accepted By UK Gov. Apply Online or Call 0800 612 68 24

David said...

The Recaptcha shown on your screen shot seems to have a hyphen on the end of the first word. A nice ironic comment!

Wouter said...

When I read the first paragraph, I actually thought it rejected your name because it contains the string "Cum" :-D

Bill-At-Work said...

I was suprised to see the problem was with the hyphen. I saw the title and thought this would be about a "rude word" filter.

I was born with a double barrelled surname, but my parents dropped one of the names while I was a minor, so my name changed too. Looks like I dodged a lot of anguish.

DXL said...

It's even worse with my first name, Daniël. I've received a similar message ("Your first name contains invalid characters"). I have now pretty much abandoned the umlaut in Anglophone contexts, also because most people simply leave it out when replying.

bdickason said...

My last name is 'dickason' so whereas I don't have problems wity special characters, I often get hit with the swear word filter which is equally obnoxious.

jbaltz said...

I have been thinking of changing my name to ALTZMAN'); DROP TABLE USERS; to see how that would work (vis., although he certainly wasn't the first to think of that.)

Jon said...

Speaking of the rude word filters, I was at the DMV renewing my licence and they had those scrolling newsreels (red LED thingies) on the wall for people to watch when they're bored.

Anyway, they had a thing about Dick Cheney, except it said **** Cheney. I find it ironic they have a word filter built into it when they're the ones with the feed uplink.

kstachowski said...

what gets me is the whole double last name thing. Whats wrong with one last name? if you get married and don't want to lose your last name fine, keep your original. if your spouse didn't mind you hyphenating your name i'm sure they wont mind you just not taking it at all. but as far as special characters, imagine if my last name was some squiggly lines (kind of like the artist formally known as prince), should i start complaining about how no system ever takes my name? and in this case they dont even have the character on the keyboard! now thats BS!

sapphirecat said...



Actually, the things that annoy me most are systems that once accepted something, but no longer do; and then they refuse to save an update because the unrelated, unchanged field is no longer acceptable.

Kevin Fairchild said...

Thank goodness Little Bobby Drop Tables wasn't signing up for their service...

But, yeah, it's a major issue and is annoying. Too often, the UI validation is written to make sense to the developers and not to the end-users.

Similarly, I've found it an issue with password rules. Far too often, sites will only inform you of its rules AFTER you try to submit the password (twice).

devonianfarm said...

Personally I think there ~is~ something wrong with your last name.

Hyphenated last names are a product of the baby-boomer narcissism of the upper middle class. It's not a sustainable practice, and as such, it reflects a "apre moi le deluge" attitude about life.

Suppose you get married to somebody else of the same social class, i.e., a woman who has a hypenated name. Suppose you have children, are they going to have names like

A-B-C-D ?

are their children going to have names like

A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H ?

Are their children going to have names like

A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P ?

At some point the self-aggrandizement has to stop. It's just one more example of a civilization that's given up on survival.

John Graham-Cumming said...

It's interesting the number of people who assume that my last name is a result of my parents deciding to join their names together.

The fact is that such last names are common in Britain and are not a result of any action on my parents' part. In fact, my name is my father's last name, and his father's and his father's going back centuries.

Dawn said...

I'm Asian and also have a Chinese name which has a hyphen in it - no one will accept that either. My husband has the same problem. We've just given up hyphenating our names.

Dang said...

Clearly, we need to reduce the lowest-common denominator. That would also go far in standardizing web GUIs. Henceforth, only the ASCII letter 'A' (sorry, EBCDIC web users) will be supported in user names.

thecockroach said...

Just deal dude.

Meg said...


I imagine most parents raise their children with the hopes that they'll be capable of making their intelligent choices, thus saving them from that slippery slope (which is a fallacy, by the way). It's more than a little nearsighted to base your own choices on the assumption that all your descendants will feel obligated to make the exact same ones. Maybe they'll each keep their own names, being M. A-B and M. C-D? Maybe they'll each pick one name, and be M. & M. A-D? Maybe they'll make up their own name and be M. & M. E? Maybe one will change to another's, and they'll be M. & M. A-B? Who cares? If your kids are old enough to get married, they should be old enough to figure out how they want to smush their names together without your help.

R said...

I like to sign my name Ren๛

valleyviolet said...

I'm reminded of the time the airlines completely botched the name on my ticket. My first name is Eva and my middle initial is N... that means my ticket should say EVAN, right? The guy in security gave me a very funny look and I had to explain about the middle initial before he let me through.

Ironically my husband has a space in his name, and you'd be surprised by how many systems flip out about plain old spaces. It made a convenient excuse to tell older, conservative relatives when they asked why I didn't change my name when we got married. ;)

Mark said...

My surname is O'Leary; I feel your pain. What's worse is being told that my email address, complete with apostrophe, is invalid. That always makes me send the developer a link to the RFC that defines the valid character list, complete with apostrophes and hyphens. WHen feeling vindictive, I point out that the distribution of non-alphanumerics in names maps to ethnic groups, so rejecting them is essentially racism.

Best so far?, who eventually corrected their registration screen to accept my name, but for whom every other profiel screen crashed on invalid email *even though no email field was present to edit*. Bad code from the ground up!

Robby said...

You would've been better off not using your computer today.
That article was "fucking retarded".
Stop getting so pissed off, as if you're being offended.
Ever heard the experience "Get the fuck over it".

It's Yahoo.
Not your girlfriend.
Deal with it.
Move on.

Michael said...

Another point about the issue here is apart from the fact that JGC finds it annoying his own personal name (that he's had a lifetime to grow accustomed to) isn't accepted, it also points to lazy programming. Since he's a programmer as well, that's gotta hurt, too. FFS, the ASCII charset has been around almost since the dawn of computing, why are some forms designed to only accept a selected portion of ASCII input? What's wrong with escaping uncommon characters? That's what the whole concept of 'escaping' was designed to do!

I agree with Mark, there are RFCs that were written a long time ago to deal with exactly this situation. Programmers and developers should research this before they start building.

dctidb said...

I have this problem too, but some usernames can be more problematic than little Bobby Tables.

Alain said...

> PS Would accepting the hyphen actually destroy your database?

Maybe not the hyphen. But an apostrophe (such as in O'Reilly) surely will. Just google SQL injection. Welcome to the wonderful world of Microsoft Sequel Sewer.

Pierre-Henri Trivier said...

To all people who says "Sure, it's lazy programming", go see the product manager of *any* far-behind-schedule-unspecified-poorly-designed-insanely-undocumented-bug-ridden software in the world, and tell them "so, we have to make sure our user registration form handle every possible naming scheme under the sun. This might have to force us to redesign substantial parts of our system (you know, all the "user.getName() is a String" parts). There's a RFC for that, it will take us XXXX days.

The best possible answer you might get is "okay, I understand that. Are we properly handling 80% of the most common cases, and have decent workaround for the other 20% ? Then maybe we can do that later".

The most likely answer is "WTF are you talking about ? We have a demo tomorrow, we must absolutely demonstrate feature XYZ that we completely forgot to tell you about, go code something !"

Both situations leads to stuff like the form we're talking about.

Don't get me wrong : both situations are inherently bad, sad, a shame, a pity, and proofs that our industry as a whole had better be dusting floors, growing pot or manufacturing cocktail glass umbrellas. In the end we'll all be dead and replace by younger, evenly incompetent versions of ourselves, so we might as well chill out.

ed1337 said...

I think changing your name to this is the solution -

bachrach44 said...

As a fellow hyphenated last name owner I couldn't agree more. I've had this problem a thousand times too, from credit card issued in the wrong name, to having to repeatedly convince people who ask for ID that I am who I say I am. The worst is when people assume for some reason that the first part of my last name is actually my first name. (I have no idea why).

pqs said...

In Spain we have two surnames.

It is frustrating that many sites consider that you surname is the last word of your full name. This does not work at all with Spanish surnames.

For example, Google Contacts has this problem. Google only provides one field to type contact names. When I sync my google contacts to my phone, the phone shows the surnames completelly wrong!

Is that difficult to include separate fields for name and surname?

martijn said...

Phone numbers are a problem too. Many sites (including, admittedly, ours for historical reasons -- it does accept non-alphabetical characters in names though) only accept numbers, no spaces hyphens or plusses. Which isn't as insulting as telling you that your name is invalid, but equally frustrating and certainly won't help the user have a pleasant experience on your website.

(For companies who may call you, I'd like to have a field where you can tell them how to pronounce your name.)

andybell said...

A change passport name application is not so bad if you have the time to wait for it.

Simon Bridge said...

I know what you mean: it's not that the system cannot handle your name, it's that this is assumed to be your fault.

I have a similar thing with emails that say: "your email program is incapable of showing our message properly" ... no, I just switched rtf off so I don't have to look at animated ads and so on just to read a message.

It is better just to put the plain text in the header instead.

etcshadow said...

You could have it worse...

boci said...

Very typical design failure :(
I am trying to convince our client to allow any character, digits and symbols, but currently we are on the phase of allowing characters from any language and symbols like . - '
But who knows what kind of rules do we have worldwide? Have you heard about click-consonants used in some African languages? The allow !, |, ||, I with two horizontal cross, O with a dot inside etc... I don't understand why input fields have to have stupid validation rules.

My example: I have an 'ó' in my name. Once I could not use a webshop because they did not accept it as a valid name for credit card holder, but my bank did not accept my name with a simple 'o' O.o

Mr. Z said...

To all those who said that hyphenated names are a middle class affectation;

- Why should people change their names to suit a stupid computer programmer?

- Even after 41 years in the business, the arrogance of computer programmers continues to surprise me.

- Hyphenated names are not unusual in the UK, and have been for decades, likely centuries. And they're an upper class affectation, not a middle class one.

- Don't move to Spain. Or Germany. Good luck getting them to change their naming traditions to suit your laziness.


Shamino said...

Alain: SQL injection vulnerabilities are the result of sloppy programming. There is nothing preventing an SQL database from having text fields that contain apostrophe characters (just like the one that's storing this comment thread.)

See also

Parity Animal said...

Hyphenated names have only been in use for...oh, CENTURIES! They were in use BEFORE any of these computer programs or databases were written, so why didn't the programmers allow for that in name fields? Yes, it would take a few more lines of code and verification to allow for the hyphen, and, perhaps, the apostrophe.

As for whether it's an "upper class affectation" or a "middle class affectation" is not relevant. The hyphenated names came first, and the programs and databases came after and should comply with reality, not lazy programming.

I've also seen examples where my doctor's name has been "anglicized" to MUNOZ as the Ñ was, apparently, not an acceptable character either.

Diego Fernandez said...




Joe O' Hara said...

Change yours

Joe O' Hara said...

Why not change your name Hayden. You possibly are actually descended from O'Hayden Hayden Name Meaning

1) Irish: reduced form of O’Hayden, an Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó hÉideáin and Ó hÉidín ‘descendant of Éideán’ or ‘descendant of Éidín’, personal names apparently from a diminutive of éideadh ‘clothes’, ‘armor’. There was also a Norman family bearing the English name (see 2 below), living in County Wexford.

Joe O' Hara said...

You are very tolerant - NOT

Joe O' Hara said...

Very good. It is a result of programmers not being bothered to deal with the entire data base for their own convenience.

Joe O' Hara said...

Thanks for your useless contribution.

Joe O' Hara said...

Mu passport is valid. The systems are invalid

Joe O' Hara said...

So we can send rockets to Mars that can arrive within seconds of the design target time but we can't handle people's correct surname on our computers

Joe O' Hara said...

Glad to know this irks someone else. My surname is O'Hara so I come across this problem too. Rather than all of us with this problem accepting it the programmers of this virtual world should accept the reality that they have to conform to reality themselves and get the finger out. I refuse to buy anything from a website that won't allow me to enter my proper surname and I hope all of us do.

Wookey said...

"Is that difficult to include separate fields for name and surname? "

No, and it's common, but it's also wrong in a different way: it breaks name entry for the set of people that only have one name (which includes me). Or at least it needs to be carefully done and allow entry in only one field, which is extremely rare in my experience.

Treating names as anything other than by trying to split them up according to local custom does not work. is a useful reference.

Chuck van der Linden said...

The other fun assumptions I often run afoul of are
* Names will not contain a space
* Names will not contain more than a single space
* All parts of a name should Start With A Capital Letter
* ok if not starting with Caps that's limited to the very first part of a last name

for ref last name is "van der Linden" and it gets mangled all the time by various systems