Multi-great style or the great-great-great tongue-twister

Multi-great style_Great-great-great_Summary ImageWhat label do I attach to a great-great-great-grandmother in speech and in writing? Because, let’s face it, “great-great-great-grandmother” is just a ridiculous mouthful. Do I say “3-times-great-grandmother”? “Third-great-grandmother”? Or, more concisely in writing, “3rd-great-grandmother”? Do I need the hyphens? Does the genealogy field have a standard?


For all who want to skip past the whys and wherefores and get to the bottom line, skip to the end.

Why do we need style standards?

I’ve been an editor for decades, so I’m naturally bothered by the absence of rules in writing. Oh, I am completely comfortable with having the freedom to break the rules. Like now. An incomplete sentence, horror of horrors.  But there’s a time and a place for rules.

When it comes to genealogical terminology, I’m a GEG. I want to get it right. I want to know what terms are capitalized, italicized, or hyphenated, and when and why. If I don’t have these rules, I’m bound to break the one unbreakable rule of communication: be consistent.

Needless to say, then, I’ve been bothered by the inconsistent ways we all refer to our distant great-ancestors, in speech and in writing.  In fact, we don’t have an overarching name for this sort of relative, that I have found, so I’m going to invent one. We’ll call them the “multi-greats.”


How do publishers and producers handle the multi-greats?

In my current copy of  National Genealogical Society Quarterly, I see a “great-great-great-grandfather,”  and I’m told this is the journal’s standard practice. Recent issues of the National Genealogical Society Magazine, on the other hand, use “second-great-grandparents,” “great-great-great grandson” (with no great-grand hyphen), and “great-great-grandfather” in various articles.

I watched an episode of “Genealogy Roadshow” recently and heard one host referring to a “3rd-great-grandfather.” Another one talked about a “great-great-great-grandfather,” though she shifted to “4th-great-grandfather” when she got to that mouthful.

FamilySearch blog posts display “great great grandfather” (no hyphens), “great-great-grandmother” (fully hyphenated), “third-great grandmother” (text ordinal, hyphenated on first two terms), and “4th great-grandmother” (numeral ordinal, hyphenated on the last two terms).  Ancestry.com’s “Glossary of Genealogical Terms,” under “ancestor” includes “2nd great-grandparents (also called great great-grandparents),” with initial hyphens omitted for both variants.

So is there no rule, or is everyone ignoring it?

 

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Do published genealogical standards address the multi-greats?

multi-great style_great-great-great_CMOS RulesThe Board of Certification for Genealogy has deemed The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) the essential guide to matters of style and usage for our field. I’m glad of this, because CMOS is the style standard in my day job of historical publishing, too. I know it pretty well.

CMOS doesn’t answer our question, though. It does establish the rules of hyphenation, using a multi-great example, which indicates quite rightly that all multi-great terms should be fully hyphenated. But it does not give a standard of how to refer to a multi-great.

With respect to the hyphenation, the tendency to leave out the first hyphen in multi-great terms, like “great great-grandfather,” creates the potential for misinterpretation. You could mean “wonderful great-grandfather.” If you say “2nd great-grandfather,” you could be referring to the second of two great-grandfathers in a photograph. Hyphenation eliminates this, so any multi-great variation should be fully  hyphenated, like “4th-great-grandfather.”

CMOS makes no pretense to being an exhaustive guide for all fields of study. It deals with the universal elements of style, but expects various scholarly fields and industries to create their own supplementary style guides for industry-specific terms and usage.

If not CMOS, what?

 

multi-great style_great-great-great_Evidence ExplainedThe genealogy field has done this on the question of style for citations and sources, thanks to Elizabeth Shown Mills’s Evidence Explained. This guide has been designated the citation standard for anyone seeking genealogical certification. See Genealogy Standards: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Evidence Explained does not address questions of narrative style, however, hence no mention of the multi-greats.

I searched the web for a style guide for writing genealogy, and got excited when someone mentioned Mary H. Slawson’s Getting It Right: The Definitive Guide to Recording Family History Accurately. I ordered it, and I’m glad I did. It’s an excellent resource for indexing and listing, but it does not address the multi-greats, as used in narrative.

The Geni.com website presents a standard for abbreviations. Similar to Mary Slawson’s book, it helps with listings, but does not address the use of the term in narrative or in speaking. It recommends “Gggf” for great-great-grandfather and “Gggm” for great-great-grandmother. These would also get confusing, once the Gs began to multiply, as in Ggggggggf. The narrative flow would stop cold in counting Gs. And non-genealogists probably could not make out what it meant.

I’m bothered, as an editor and GEG, by the missing multi-great narrative style rule. I want to write or speak to groups confident that I know the established preference. If I deviate from it, I want it to be a conscious choice and not an absence of guidance.


What do genealogy’s experts say about the multi-great situation?

There had to be a style rule somewhere, I worried. I didn’t want to write this post and have experts call me to task for not having consulted some guidebook I haven’t yet encountered. So I queried a group of experts I respect: the faculty of the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research. And quite a few of them responded.

Guess what? No rule.

 

Several told me the formal style has traditionally been “great-great-great-great-grandfather,” and a couple of them still prefer that. The others preferred “4th-great-grandfather” or “fourth-great-grandfather.” Note: They had variations in the use of hyphens, but we’ve already established that all hyphens are required by the one style guide we do have.

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What multi-great variation do GEGS prefer?

I surveyed the GEG mailing list, asking this group of genealogically savvy people what form of the multi-great terms they found most readable in a narrative. They responded in this way:

Term Percent Approved
4th-great-grandfather* 47%
4x-great-grandfather 26%
gggg-grandfather 13%
Fourth-great-grandfather 9%
great-great-great-great-grandfather 4%
* One respondent wrote in this option as "4th great-grandfather," eliminating the first hyphen.

Can we set our own standard?

Let’s do. In fact, it is our obligation, if we want to leave genealogy better than we found it. Of course, we all remain free to violate the rule. But if we want to be consistent, readable, and always understood, we’ll have guide to follow. Here goes.

Multi-great style--a rule for the great-great-greatsThe Golden Egg Genealogist’s Style: Multi-Great Kinship

References to direct ancestors, direct descendants, and their siblings — all kinship titles designated “great” — grow unwieldy when the term “great” multiplies. While “great-great-great-great” remains technically correct for the grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, it hinders readability. For any ancestral term using more than one “great,” the preferred style is a numeric ordinal and one “great” preceding the first-level kinship, with all terms hyphenated.

Examples: 3rd-great-grandson (replacing great-great-great-grandson), 4th-great-grandfather, 2nd-great-grandnephew, step-3rd-great-granddaughter, 6th-great-grandaunt

Exception: If the term begins a sentence, spell out the ordinal: “Third-great-grandson . . . .” Formal publications might also prefer the spelled-out ordinal for all multi-great references.

Abbreviations: Use a numeral to connote the number of greats, then add “gg” for “great-grand” and the final relationship term. Example:  6ggf (great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather).


Use it. Don’t use it. Your choice. But you have one now.

 

Want a vote next time we debate a question of style?

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8 thoughts on “Multi-great style or the great-great-great tongue-twister”

    1. Thanks, Peggy. I’m thinking you were probably responding to the post “Genetic DNA: Why More is Better,” (http://gegbound.com/genetic-dna-better/). And you are absolutely right. I was keeping this post simple — on the autosomal– but should have mentioned that there are more sophisticated tests that can solve deeper problems. I will revise. Thanks so much for your help!

  1. This is exactly the form I would use. Glad to see there is now a standard. Let’s just get the word out. I remember listening to one of the genealogy programs (” Who Do you Think You Are” or “Genealogy Roadshow” and one of the people kept going on about “my 3 times great grandfather.” For some reason that just grated on my nerves. Plus she kept saying it over and over and I thought “okay, enough, we know who he is, maybe now you could just say my ancestor” at least in the same conversation. Writing is one thing, but for conversation, things can get old in a hurry.

  2. I agree with Sally’s comment. The first time I heard anyone say “3 times great-grandfather” was on the first season of “Who Do You Think You Are” (before they moved it to cable, which I don’t have). And it grated on my nerves. I thought, “Well, this is just a well-known actress saying this. It doesn’t mean anything”. Except for the fact that it’s being seen by millions of people. I still hate that terminology. And I don’t see how it explains the relationship. It sounds more like it means a man has been a great-grandfather three times (has three great-grandchildren). I guess I’m too picky 🙂

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