How First / Middle / Last Names Can Play Nice Together

fighting-boysThis is the last post in our How to Master Middle Name series. You can find other posts in this series here.

Let’s take a moment to discuss name flow. But before we even talk about flow, some discussion about where flow stands in the pecking order would be helpful. My motto when it comes to names, clothes, home decor, etc. is, “Style without function causes unnecessary grief.”

To that end, I consider name flow a nice-to-have—not a must-have. Since flow is simply a nice-to-have, I would never suggest:

  • Giving up a meaningful name or one you really love because the flow is a little off.
  • Calling your child by a middle name only because the day-to-day name you wanted flowed better in the middle. (Once I became a name blog junkie, I was surprised at the number of people considering this.)

That’s why I suggest picking the first name first, if possible, and then going from there. FYI—I broke my suggestion. For years I knew I wanted my daughter to have the same middle name as me and my Mom, long before I picked her first name. But if possible, “first name first” makes the most sense regardless of how many middle names you choose.

Once the first name is picked, and assuming the last name is picked, here’s my checklist:

  1. Don’t over look first and last name flow (it’s the most important)
  2. Alternate syllable counts
  3. Avoid repetitious sounds
  4. Pay attention to syllable stress
  5. Avoid “vowel run-on”

Don’t Over Look First-Last Name Flow

First-last name flow should not get overlooked in the effort to find the right first-middle name flow. The first and middle name could go together beautifully, while the first-last name flow is off.

When it comes to flow, first-last name flow is the most important since those are the names that will be used everyday. The flow doesn’t have to be perfect, but make sure it’s not a tongue-twister.

Something to note with first-last name flow is the cultural origins of the last name. Cross-cultural name combos (e.g. Fiona Wang or Naveen O’Donnell) is a hot baby name topic. The topic may even be a tad controversial. I’m all for cross-cultural combos, but I’m also all for balance in the ways names coordinate and contrast.

By picking a first name with a different cultural origins than the last name, you are already creating contrast. Therefore, to create balance, cross-cultural names should coordinate and not compete with each other.

One way names can either coordinate or compete is with length. Here are some examples with a long Italian last name, Mazzarella.

Here’s a long Italian first name with a long Italian last name:

  • Cecilia Mazzarella

This combo passes because both names may be long, but they are also Italian. (Cecilia is actually a multicultural name.)

Now here’s a long English first name with the same long Italian last name:

  • Willoughby Mazzarella

This combo fails, in my opinion, because the two long names compete.

Here’s the result when the first name is shortened:

  • Will Mazzarella

This combo passes. (The two names have contrasting lengths and don’t complete.)

Alternating name length leads into the next item on the checklist:

Alternate Syllable Counts

Once the first name passes with the last name, try alternating syllable counts. In the following examples, I’m using two middle names, but these guidelines work regardless of how many middle names are used.

For example, compare a 2-4-2 pattern (Lena Felicity Adele) to a 2-2-4 pattern (Lena Adele Felicity).

I prefer the 2-4-2  pattern for its symmetry, but let’s see what happens when we switch some names.

  • Another 2-4-2 combo with a different four syllable first middle name: Lena Serenity Adele. This combo passes (in my opinion)
  • A 2-3-2 combo: Lena Josephine Adele. This combo passes.
  • Another 2-3-2 combo with a different two-syllable second middle name: Lena Josephine Maxine. This combo fails (in my opinion).

While Lena Josephine Adele and Lena Josephine Maxine both have the same 2-3-2 pattern, the first one passes and the second one fails. Josephine and Maxine simply rhyme too much, which leads to the next qualifier:

Avoid Repetitious Sounds

With Josephine and Maxine, the “een” endings are too repetitious. Name beginnings can also cause too much repetition, such as in this failed combo: Nora Noreen Gail. Try saying that 10 times fast.

But there is one more place where names can share too much.

Pay Attention to Syllable Stress

Take a look at this combo:

  • Elizabeth Felicity Olivia

Can you tell what’s wrong with the combo?

Do you think switching the combo will save it? The answer is no. Switching the order of the names (e.g. Elizabeth Olivia Felicity or Felicity Elizabeth Olivia) will not make this combo pass. Why do these names fail next to each other?

Besides all three names having four syllables, Elizabeth Felicity Olivia doesn’t work because the stress is on the second syllable in all three names. Often varying syllable counts solves this problem, but if you put two names with the same syllable counts next to each other, at least try to keep the stress on different syllables.

For example, here’s a 2-2-2 combo that may not be terrific, but passes (in my book):

  • Vera Delphine Opal

This combo passes because the stress is on the first syllable in Vera and Opal, while the stress is on the second syllable in Delphine. This breaks up a monotonous pattern found in other 2-2-2 combos.

An example of a monotonous 2-2-2 combo is:

  • Vera Dina Opal

This combo fails. Notice how the stress is on the first syllable with all three names.

Syllable stress makes a difference, but it’s not the last qualifier to watch.

Avoid “Vowel Run-on”

“Vowel run-on” is when a name ending in a vowel has a middle name beginning with a vowel.

Sometimes this isn’t a problem. Some of the most popular middle names happen to start with vowels, such as Anne and Elizabeth. But other times names ending and beginning with vowels blend together.

For example:

  • Ava Angela Elise almost sounds like one name, Avangelice (almost like some modern creation inspired by Evangeline).

Closing Thought

While first-middle-last name flow can be subjective, following this checklist will give you a starting point for finding the right middle name for your baby. But if you find you love a combo that breaks the rules, then I say go for it.

Readers: Which of these risky name combos are your favorites?


  1. mr. donut says:

    Avangelicarianameridan (Avangelici Ariana Amy Eridan) is a good name. Thanks for recommending Avangelice. I will use its variation Avangelici! Why just call a donut a donut when you could call it an Avangelici? \(‘o’)/

  2. Very interesting! Two questions – 1) what is the ‘rule’ for last names that have 4 syllables? and 2) we love the name Marlowe but our last name is Cos-en-ti-no. Both long “o” sounds. Is that do-able according to this? Thanks! 😉

    • My last name has 5 syllables so I can relate. I know someone with a last name that sounds very similar to yours. Her first name is Jennifer, a 3 syllable name with a 1 syllable nickname, Jen and a 2 syllable nickname, Jenny. When I say all variations with her last name, it sounds fine: Jen Cos-en-ti-no, Jenny Cos-en-ti-no, and Jennifer Cos-en-ti-no.

      With a 4+ syllable last name, I like 2 syllable first names the best. The 2-4 syllable count in Marlowe Cos-en-ti-no works well IMO.

      The repetitious long o is either a bonus or a drawback. In this case, it really is a matter of taste. Sometimes alliteration works and other times it doesn’t. With Marlowe Cos-en-ti-no, I feel the repetitious long o makes the name memorable and that is in its favor.

  3. Before marriage, I had a classic Anglo last name. It was long, but quite easy to pair with first names. Now I have a very ethnic-sounding name with two syllables that sounds like Fatsko. I’m at a loss when it comes to choosing a first name. My husband (and I) keep picking French/English, three-syllable names. I feel like we need to stick to very familiar names to make up for the unusual last name. I’m careful about syllable balance, vowel creep, and rhythm. Is there anything else we should be aware of when we talk about coordinating two ethnically mismatched names?

    • NO WAY JOSE says:


      • This is kind of exciting. I have my first troll, complete with all caps! In an attempt to share the drawbacks of my married last name, I might have come across as complaining, but despite the drawbacks I kind of like my married name. You’re right, I could have kept my maiden name, but that name had it’s own drawbacks. For one thing, I don’t like the way it sounded with the name I chose for my daughter–not that that’s the reason I took my husband’s name. Anyway, have a good day

      • Looking back, No Way Jose, I can see why this reads as a bit complain-y. Why I chose to take my partner’s last name is both off-topic and a private concern, but your point is taken. Naming turns out to be a *very* important thing for my partner and, wow, that caught me off guard. He had so many concerns about our list that I was overly stressed when I wrote that first comment. However, like millions of parents before us, we found names that worked for our children, so all is well that ends well.

  4. Lydia Rose says:

    my name is Lydia Rose an type of yellow-orange rose its is very beautiful and i goes together perfectly.

  5. We are having a baby and if it is a girl we want to call her Rose. So we have stuck to your first rule, choosing the first name first! Tick.
    We have ruled out all the longer Rosalie/Rosamund/Rosemary/Rosalba etc forms.
    The surname is 2 syllable so that is fine for flow.
    We need 2 middles (all the other children have two middles).
    What do you think of 1-1-3-2 or 1-1-4-2? Can it work?
    I think it could work with Rose, I was playing with Rose Lark or Rose Maud as 1-1 and then follow up with a really fancy 3 or 4 syllable over-the-top name for a second middle like Ophelia or Corisande or even something sensible like Antonia or Catherine.
    An alternative is 1-2-3-2. Husband wants his great-granny’s name Frieda in there. I haven’t yielded yet but let’s give it a go?
    So Rose Frieda (3 syllable middle) (2 syllable surname)?
    Frieda is such an ugly clunky name (even great-granny didn’t like being called Frieda!) but it goes well enough with Rose but NOTHING goes with Rose Frieda!
    The only things I can come up with are Coralie (my great-granny to match his) or Josephine (a long-standing runner-up for first name).
    So what do you think – can I get away with 1-1-long-2? And can Rose Frieda SomethingLong Two ever fly?

  6. ps Husband’s other great-granny is Gertrude and a granny called Irene. But Frieda is the one he is keen on.

  7. pps! This is probably our last child (it will be the 4th) and my last chance to be imaginative and adventurous and really have fun. The last children were twin girls and we named one each so Husband has had a go!

  8. What about pairing two one syllable names together? Does Mary Lynn Bell flow well? Or Mary Christine Bell? Thanks!

  9. Hi Angela. I haven’t had any children yet, nor do I have any on the way, but I’ve already started thinking of baby names in preparation for the future. I’m 20, and for the past 5 years I’ve had names I love for my future children – for a girl, Aliya Micah Andrea [last name], and for a boy, Niyle Benjamin Tobias [last name] (Niyle pronounced like Nile or Niall). I’ve since had to change my little girl’s name, because my sister had her baby girl a week ago and named her Alya – I don’t want to clash, so I’ve made minor changes and my Aliya has become Aliyanne. However, I’m worried that the Micah Andrea won’t go, because of the consecutive vowels, and – while I love my boy’s name – I’m worried about the 1-3-3. Having had to change my little girl’s name already, I would be heart broken if I had to do the same for Niyle.
    Disclaimer: my sister didn’t know I had chosen Aliya for my little girl, so she didn’t do it out of spite or anything, we love each other. It was just an unfortunate coincidence :/

  10. Tanner Walker says:

    my name is tanner and I want to change my last name to sound better and I really don’t know what last name sounds good with tanner.

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