Why Some Names Get Stuck In The Middle

Laurene-MarieLast week we talked about go-to middle names, common middle names that seem tired and are ready for retirement. Examples of go-to middle names are Anne, Elizabeth, James, Marie, and Michael. There is a reason certain middle names have become common–they work.

When Rob and I decided to pass on Rob’s first name as our son’s middle name, I began to consider why we didn’t pass on my first name (Angela) as our daughter’s middle name. When I discussed this with my friend, her response was:

Some names just aren’t middle names.

But why is Angela not a middle name? Why are some names seen as first names only?

Rhythm is the answer. There are other reasons Angela is difficult in the middle, such as the a-ending, but most names that don’t conventionally find their way to the middle are passed over because of their rhythm.

Go-to middle names have three distinct syllable patterns that complement most other first names. The new middle name recruit list posted last week was created from (mostly) names that follow the same distinct syllable patterns of (most) go-to middle names.

There are formulas you can use to get good flow between the first name and middle name. When picking a middle name, most parent subconsciously apply these formulas. Parents don’t generally apply the formulas as consistently with boy as with girls, but the formulas work for both genders. My goal is that more parents learn the middle name rules they are already subconsciously following.

Some of you might automatically feel boxed in with rules. To be clear, I don’t share these rules as rigid requirements, but rather as guidelines that you can follow or break at will. Intentionally breaking the rules with good reasons is how picking names becomes fun.

Intentionally breaking the rules is how you can still use Angela in the middle without accepting the “everyone knows Angela isn’t a middle name” default. But before you can defy convention, you need to know what the conventions are.

The Three Distinct Patterns Found In (Most) Middle Names

Here are the three distinct rhythm patterns of conventional middle names:

  1. One syllable names. I call these “One Syllable Wonders”.
  2. Two syllable names with the stress on the second syllable. I call these “Fantastic Iambic Names”.
  3. Names with three or more syllables that don’t end in A. I call these “Super Syllable Names“.

One Syllable Wonders

Anne, Grace, James and Rose all work well in the middle because they are one syllable. One syllable middle names are the easiest to work with. They flow well with almost any name, except maybe other one syllable names, which can result in an abrupt sound with certain combination.

However, there are some classic one syllable name combinations, mostly for boys, that sound good, such as John Paul, John Luke, and John Mark.

The trick with double-one syllable combos is to avoid names that share vowels. For example, Tate Zane sounds choppy because both names have the long-a vowel.

With a few exceptions, one syllable wonders break up the rhythm and create an easy bridge to the last name. Here are some examples of one syllable middle names with first names of varying lengths.

Bethany Fern
Geoffrey Clive
Jean Claire
Jenna Pearl
Malcolm Ross
Michelle Brynn

Fantastic Iambic Names (Applies Mostly To Girls)

Iambic names are two-syllable names with the stress on the second syllable. Marie, Michelle, and Nicole became go-to middle names because of their iambic rhythms. Finding boy equivalents is difficult, at least in English–more on that later.

For girls at least, iambic names make the best two-syllable middle names. This is because they create an ascent-descent rhythm. When I say names like Sarah Michelle or Emma Simone, I picture a bell curve. These combinations avoid the repetitious sing-song pattern of two first stress two-syllable names. Note the examples:

Henry-MichaelGood: Sarah Michelle
Not so good: Sarah Megan
Good: Eden Celeste
Not so good: Eden Cora

Exceptions To The “Fantastic Iambic” Rule

Now might be a good time to bring up the complicated, yet undeniable, importance of je ne sais quoi, a fancy French way of saying some first/middle name combos will break the rules and still appeal to some people for unknown reasons.

Examples that work and don’t work for me, regardless of rules:

A rule breaker that (possibly) works: Sarah Megan breaks the iambic rule, but seems fine to me, if not great.
A rule follower that doesn’t work: Ava Elise follows the iambic rule but still seems awkward.

The vowel ending of Ava and the vowel beginning of Elise cause the names to run together, sounding like one name, Avalise, which is sort of pretty, but could become difficult to announce. Bear in mind the only time this would be an issue is during times when the full name is announced such as graduations.

One big exception to the fantastic iambic rule is boy names. As I mentioned before, there aren’t many iambic boy names. The only one I can think of is David pronounced the French way, da-VEED.

David is a somewhat common boy middle names, but usually (among English-speakers) with its English pronunciation and, according to this unscientific online middle name poll, David isn’t as popular a middle name as Alan.

Alan is the number one male middle name according to this online poll, but the results may not be exact. Alan is two syllables, but not iambic. With Alan, the stress is on the first syllable. The technical term for this pattern is trochaic.

Trochaic middle names like Alan works best with first names that are either one syllable (James Alan) or three+ syllables (Jeremy Alan), but these names are OK with two-syllable first names (Jason Alan).

On the new middle name recruit list from last week, Malcolm and Marshall were inspired by their rhythm, which is similar to Alan.

More examples that work and don’t work for me, regardless of the “fantastic iambic” rule:

A rule bender that works: Franklin Marshall is a double trochaic combo that sounds good.
A rule bender that doesn’t work: Franklin Malcolm is a double trochaic combo that doesn’t sound good to me.

With Franklin Malcolm the endings (N and M) are similar, but not the same. I like names that either perfectly match (alliteration) or contrast, and Franklin Malcolm does neither.

And if boys can break the fantastic iambic rule, why not girls? Inspired by the name of late actress and casting director, Cecily April Adams, I put April, another trochaic name, on the girls’ new recruit list. As a middle name April works best with three (or more syllable) first names ending-in-ee. For example:

Bethany April
Felicity April
Serenity April

This pattern could work for other trochaic middle names. Had my son been a girl, I really wanted to name him Cecily Robin.

Now That The Exceptions Have Been Exhausted

Here are just some of the fantastic iambic names on the list from last week. Any of these names would work well in most combos where an uninspired parent would use Marie.

Celeste (pronounced the English way, se-LEST)

Super Syllable Names

Almost any name with three or more syllables seems to work well as a middle name. Elizabeth’s four syllables and non-a-ending made it a go-to middle name. But pairing super syllable names with first names takes some thought.

I wish I could say you could simply swap Elizabeth with any three or four syllable name on the new recruit list and get good results, but that’s not always the case.

For one thing, none of the new recruit middle names end in A. There is a reason for this. With girl names, three syllable names ending in A don’t often work well in the middle. This is because a first and middle name that both end in A could create a sing-song effect. Sometimes a sing-song effect is surprisingly good, as in Ava Cecilia. But most of the time the effect is off, as in Jenna Vanessa (or even worse Jessa Vanessa).

That doesn’t mean middle names ending in A don’t ever work; they just work best with first names ending in any letter besides A. For example, Scarlett Susanna might work, but I imagine reader reviews on Scarlett Susanna would be mixed. Maybe even with first names that don’t end in A, middle names ending in A are tricky.

Super syllable middle names usually flow best with two-syllable trochaic (stress on the first syllable) first names. For example, Ashley Elizabeth, Ava Bernadette, Henry Solomon, and Nina Damaris sound fine.

Super syllable middle names usually also work with two-syllable iambic (stress on the second syllable) first names, but the results vary. This could be subjective but, in my opinion, some of these combos work better than others.

Iambic + super syllable combos that work for me:
Marie Damaris
Sylvie Bernadette

An iambic + super syllable combo that works well enough, but isn’t great:
Nicole Elizabeth

An iambic + super syllable combo that seems off:
Delphine Felicity

Super syllable middle names also work surprisingly well with super syllable first names. One might think these combos would get too long, and in some cases they can be too long. A couple of details decide how well double-super syllable combos work.

The first detail to note is which syllable is stressed in both names. Examples of double-super combos that work well enough:
Olivia Gwendolyn
Olivia Winifred

Examples of double-super syllable combos that seem off:
Olivia Elizabeth
Olivia Felicity

In the examples that seems off, besides the obvious fact that both names have four syllables (Olivia with Elizabeth and Felicity), both Olivia and the middle names have a stress on the second syllable. The result is a very repetitive combo. Gwendolyn and Winifred have a stress on the first syllable, breaking up any repetition with Olivia.

The second detail to note is the last name length. With a short last name, you can pull off a double-super syllable combo. For example Olivia Winifred King is fine. But with a long last name, you could end up with a mouthful of syllables. For example Olivia Winifred Grabowski is a bit much.

Sometimes super syllable middle names sound good with one syllable first names, but these combinations don’t always work as well as they should. One might think the contrast in length would create a nice balance, but sometimes the balance isn’t enough.

Short-long combos that work:
Mark Ulysses
George Thaddeus
Rose Ophelia

Short-long combos that don’t work:
Elle Bernadette
Hugh Ulysses

There’s something about Elle that makes it difficult to pair. Maybe it’s the fact it sounds like the letter L or el, the Spanish connector used before feminine nouns. Either way, Elle has a way of blending into middle names. With Hugh and Ulysses the shared U causes the names to run together.


So far we have focused on finding replacements for middle names that are ready for retirement. First I gave you a list of suggestions and today I gave you a list of guidelines if you want to branch out on your own. But there is another option.

Perhaps some of the middle names on our retirement list don’t need to retire, but rather they deserve a promotion. Some common middle names would make refreshing first names. That topic is for next week.

Readers: Which of these combos are your favorites? (Multiple choices are allowed.) Do you have your own combo suggestions?

Photo credit: Laurene Marie / Henry Michael


  1. I really like middle names and wouldn’t waste an opportunity to made a great name even better with some unique middles! However, I disagree with one point – that is, that super syllable middles ending in ‘a’ really can work well. I have several options on my list. But, here’s why my suggestions work: I have very few ends-in-a first names on my list. I’m a little tired of all the girls names ending in a! I’m very into the ends in ‘e’ sound that is beginning to get popular. I agree that something like Leah Serena is waaaay too similar and sing-songy, and I would never use that myself. Also, all of the 2 syllable names I like for first names are trochaic. I’ve realized I don’t like iambic first names! So here’s my list.

    Daphne Magnolia

    Here is an ends-in-a middle that flows very well with Daphne, in my opinion. It’s paired with a 2 syllable trochaic name and does not end in ‘a’, which is why it’s so successful, I think.

    Alice Aurelia
    Honor Magnolia
    Honor Rebekah
    Juno Helena (pr. Huh-LAY-nuh)
    Phoebe Azalea
    Sunday Geneva
    Willow Seraphina

    What do you think? : )

    • I agree with you on ends-in-a middle names. I never meant to say they can never work, I simply decided to exclude them from this list in order to keep it manageable. Over on Nameberry last week, I wrote a post explaining how ends-in-a middle names can work: http://nameberry.com/blog/middle-names-longer-choices-beyond-elizabeth.

      You combinations are all very pretty. Daphne Magnolia and Phoebe Azalea are my favorites.

    • I love your combos, so many gorgeous and rare names. Daphne Magnolia and Juno Helena are my favorites. Magnolia is a name crush of mine at the moment, so I love seeing it in a combo.

  2. Firstly, I’m so happy I found this info. Very helpful thank you!
    Secondly, I’m due in one month and need any kind of advice please!
    Anneliese as a middle name.
    I really adore Alysia as a first but I keep hearing they don’t match. Last name 4 syllable last name very tough.
    Please help 🙂 thx

  3. I love this! I have had these thoughts in my mind for years, so to see somebody flesh it out like this is great. My daughter is Leandra Sage, and we are waiting to find out if second one is a boy or girl. Ella will probably first name for a girl, but can’t think of a good middle name that we just love. If a boy, Griffin Isaiah. I still like end-in-a girl names over “ee” sound, but that’s just me.


  1. […] names used so often as middles, they have become uninspired. And then we discussed why names like Anne and Marie get stuck in the middle. These go-to middle names have distinct rhythms that make them good middle name […]

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