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When referring to people, often they are named by their surname only (no titles, first names or initials if the surname alone would unambiguously denote the person in a context. E.g. Haydn, Merkel.

Some surnames contain the prefix "von" (or similar forms like "vom"/"von dem"). Surnames of non-German origin can have equivalent forms (e.g. Dutch "van", Italian "di", etc. etc.).

In German, the "von" has 2 origins:

  1. Strictly denoting origin (literally meaning "of" or "from") with a place names. As such strictly part of the surname proper (e.g. Erich von Däniken);
  2. Added to the surname upon ennoblement (meaning "of the house of"). After the abolishment of the nobility in 1919 - either becoming part of the surname proper (Germany) or being dropped (Austria). (e.g. Friedrich von Schiller)

I understand for alphabetization purposes the word without the preposition(s) is considered (D for Däniken, S for Schiller), as it is done in the Netherlands, while in e.g. Belgium and South Africa the "V" of "van" is used for this purpose.

With all this in mind, I see that often a person is denoted by his surname without the preposition(s) (e.g. Beethoven, Goethe) irrespective whether it is a commoner surname or denoting nobility - but cases can also be found where it is included (e.g. Von Hindenburg vs. the ill-fated dirigible Hindenburg).

(Beethoven provides an interesting example since the surname Van Beethoven is of Dutch origin and the "van" has not been germanized to "von", although the composer is considered German since being in the 3rd generation.)

Is there any rule or style guide clarifying how this (the dropping or retaining of prepositions like "von") is best done? Is it up to the whim of the author? Also, is there a reasoning behind a particular style?

I am asking particularly about German usage. I am aware of the same sort of process in other languages (e.g. William of Occam => Occam's Razor, Rene Descartes => Cartesian Coordinates, etc. but also Da Vinci for Leonardo.)

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    The dirigible Hindenburg as opposed to the person never possessed a von. – guidot May 5 at 15:50
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Alphabetisation should be done with the von in German, as it is officially part of the name, not anything you can just leave out (like a title). However, in practical terms, many people omit the von.

The same with talking to someone: Polite people don't omit the von, except if the person with the von also omits it. So it depends on how the person wants to be addressed. Again, in practical terms, any name is subject to shortening if it has more than one syllable (and people like to test their limits with you), and the von often gets left out - especially if you are not someone special. So even though it shouldn't be so, it's often a sign of respect to not drop it, which is the reason why some people like to drop it.

When thinking about examples where the von is never dropped, I actually only find names which were popularised with the von internationally. The already mentioned von Neumann architecture, or von Braun the brown rocket scientist, science fiction author von Daeniken and so on.

Even people of respect, like von Weizsaecker, can be affected by the vanishing von.

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    Regarding your first paragraph, this is what I found: "According to German alphabetical sorting, people with von in their surnames – of noble or non-noble descent alike – are listed in telephone books and other files under the rest of their names (e.g., the economist Ludwig von Mises would have been found under M in the phone book rather than V). " -- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von – fr13d May 6 at 7:42
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There's regional differences:

In most of southern Germany and Austria "von" and "von und zu" (see below) means "nobility". This can be "old", inherited titles as well as ennobled titles (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who is also a good example of use with and without title: If you refer to von Goethe before 1782, you should omit the "von" - He received his title during that year).

"von und zu" means "old nobility" - The family was part of the aristocracy since the middle ages and still sits on their traditional aristocratic estate - Karl Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg (a former MP and grandfather of former Minister of Defence Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg) would be an example of "old nobility".

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, "van" has nothing to do with nobility - it's just the place of origin of a name. Due to geographic proximity, the usage of "von" seems to be at least partially similar in parts of northern Germany.

With noble ranks factually abolished in 1919 in Germany, all of this has no longer much meaning - It's just names. The constitution of 1919 claimed:

Advantages or disadvantages under the public law caused by birth or social rank are to be suspended. Aristocratic titles are simply part of the name and can no longer be awarded

Just like people owning double names ("Müller-Lüdenscheid") that sometimes like to drop part of their name in everyday usage, persons with names containing "van" or "von" might prefer to use or not use that - It's simply a matter of personal preference - Or like Goethe said:

Ein Titel und ein Orden hält im Gedränge manchen Puff ab...

The rule is simple - "von" is a part of a person's name - If they want to be called like that, it's just good practice to use the name they have to address them.

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    Toponymic “von” is also common in Switzerland. – mach May 6 at 9:55
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    "von und zu": 1. this means they had one seat, then moved to another; which one is the traditional? 2. "still sits on their traditional aristocratic estate": if that means land, then no, not necessarily; could be impoverished, denounced, expropriated, from the far east (East-Prussia) // "all of this has no longer much meaning" you don't go to doctors (magazines/ watch TV) and don't compete for for rent apartments, jobs etc. This "no longer" is an idealised goal, written in law, but not achieved in all parts of real life. – LаngLаngС May 6 at 10:11
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As far as I'm aware, the "von" is almost always dropped when referring to a person by surname, except perhaps in very formal circumstances where it would feel rude not to use exactly the correct name, e.g. in the news. (And a newsspeaker would probably use the correct name of a living person. I don't think they'd ever refer to Schiller as "von Schiller".)

One nevertheless says von Neumann, probably because this what he's known as in the USA; simply saying Neumann could be confusing.

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    I strongly disagree. One says von Neumann; nobody would understand Neumann. – c.p. May 5 at 21:37
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    I totally agree. Examples: Beethovenstraße and not von-Beethoven-Straße, Stauffenbergattentat and not von-Stauffenberg-Attentat, Bismarckhering and not von-Bismarck-Hering, etc.. – scienceponder May 5 at 21:57
  • @c.p. sorry a instead of o of course. – scienceponder May 5 at 22:01
  • @c.p. von Neumann is indeed the only counterexample I'm aware of, and I'm fairly certain that we call him von Neumann because that's how he's known in the USA (and hence in his mathematics in general), so we're basically borrowing the American usage. But I don't see how one counterexample leads you to disagree with what is true in every other case you could name? Do you also disagree with the idea that the plural in English is formed by adding -s to a word? – sgf May 6 at 6:31
  • Actually I oversaw the almost before always. So I cannot contradict your answer. And I didn't analyse the case that it can be due to the English language usage, since we also in German say von-Neumann-Algebra, etc. – c.p. May 6 at 6:51

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