Letters and characters – towards a standard


There is no British standard nor equivalent international standard for acceptable letters, characters, diacritics and punctuation marks which public systems must accommodate or which are deemed acceptable in official names. A vast range of characters, marks and symbols is available on any domestic computer, and thanks to the Unicode standards these are recognised by almost all up to date computer systems.

However, public bodies asked to register names cannot be expected to accommodate every combination of symbols that may come from the imagination: one cannot claim the smiley symbol as part of a name, for example, and expect a registrar to type it. Nevertheless, a genuine name may contain letters and diacritics unfamiliar to some but required for the correct spelling of a name.

Even in English several names use accents, and in Welsh they are commonplace. In an international context, the usages of many languages must be expected and accepted. There is no good reason why a person or a company whose name contains an accented letter, for example, should be required to adopt a pseudonym for the purpose of a public function. In the same way, company names (for example) commonly include punctuation and may genuinely wish to include symbols such a pound-sign, £.

A practical consideration is that registrars must be able to type the letters and symbols which any standard accepts. While all are available on most computers, to add using the Unicode number or an “Insert symbol” function, nevertheless, a simpler method is needed. There are many ways in which a system can be customised for this purpose, but this is considered separately under “practical methods”.

Somewhere a balance of practical convenience must be reached which accommodates genuine, expected usage but which allows the exclusion of the artificial and the ridiculous. No such standard exists. This paper contains a suggestion on how it should laid down.

Character sets under the Companies Act 2006

The United Kingdom’s Companies Act 2006 anticipated the issue. In 2009, as the Act came into effect, a standard was required for the single purpose of the incorporation of companies in the United Kingdom. One initial suggestion was to permit all letters and diacritics used in the working languages of the European Union (this being before the decision to leave); this criterion however would have excluded certain forms used in Welsh (which was not an EU working language) and it would have permitted chimerical names mixing letters of the Latin, Greek and Cyrillic (Bulgarian) alphabets. This was ruled out after a consultation.

In the absence of any existing standard, a very restrictive standard was adopted as a matter of practicality and utility, permitting names to be constructed from only 26 letters, A-Z, and certain marks and symbols. It produced a workable standard, if an unadventurous one. It did not prevent the use of diacritical marks by companies themselves, as the Companies Act 2006 permits a company name to use them whether they are part of the official registered name or not.

However, the Company, Limited Liability Partnership and Business (Names and Trading Disclosures) Regulations 2015 have changed this. The new Regulations introduce a table of permitted characters, which include a wide range of letters and letters bearing diacritcal marks, approved for use in company names. The table contains every letter and accented letter which I previously recommended be accepted (with two exceptions) plus some additional forms used in Esperanto and minor dialects. (The two exceptions, the German esszet ß and the Turkish ı, only exist in lower case, and a company name is always given on the register in lower case, so those are proper omissions.)

Comparison of letters

A second aspect to a future standard will be in the comparison of names. Where there is any regulation than no two entities may be registered with the same name (a common aspect of company registration) then a registrant should not be able to register a name which differs only by virtue of a change in punctuation of the addition or omission of a diacritic, and usually such regulations will have provided for this very situation.

However, similarly certain letters or combinations of letters may be deemed to be the same for this purpose: a name containing the letter æ must be compared with “ae”. The challenge for the future will be to shape a general standard to be adopted. This exercise might assist such a standard to be developed in the future.

The requirements of various languages

A summary of the requirements of languages in ‘Summary Appendix