“Every language has a grammar, a set of rules that govern usage and meaning, and literary language is no different. It’s all more or less arbitrary of course, just like language itself.” Thomas C. Foster
By Betsy Cross Thorpe
I’m a writer. I’ve been writing for quite a long time. One thing my years of experience has taught me is that the quality of my work relies heavily on my consistently following the rules of grammar and style. Consistency is so important to me that before I made my first post, when earlier this year I started contributing to Tales of Our Family, The Roe family genealogy history blog, I looked in on multiple blogs to learn how others wrote about their ancestors. While most of the posts were very good, I was surprised to find that in the field of genealogical writings it is perfectly acceptable to break that universal rule of writing, which is maintain consistency.
From post to post, and sometimes even within the same piece, I found inconsistencies in terms, style, and usage. Titles, terms, and phrases were abbreviated, hyphenated, italicized, and capitalized at will. But it was the multiple ways that writers designated their long-gone great-ancestors that really made my head spin.
Great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, 6 great-grandmother, 6x great-grandmother 6gg-grandmother, sixth-great-grandmother.
I had one overriding question. What is the multi-great writing rule?
I turned to an editor friend for help. She consulted that venerable guide to grammar, style, and usage, The Chicago Manual of Style. Although the manual is the go-to resource for most writers, editors and publishers it doesn’t always provide rules for the specialized terms used in specific fields of study. Unfortunately for the purposes of this blog post genealogy is one of those unregulated fields.
Without a rule to follow I decided that I was free to pick which style to use. I chose from the terms listed above. My only criterion was readability. I eliminated all the options with numeric ordinals, which according to The Chicago Manual of Style could not be used at the beginning of sentences. That left only two other terms to choose from. The first one was awkward to read; the reader would be distracted trying to count all the greats. That left the final example, my sixth-great-grandmother.
In my genealogical writings multi-great-ancestors and relatives will be designated with their generational number spelled out followed by a hyphen, followed by the word great, followed by a hyphen, which will be followed by their familial relationship to me. All in lower case. Unless of course the term is used at the beginning of a sentence in which the first letter of the spelled out number shall be capitalized.
That’s the Betsy Cross Thorpe rule of Multi-Greats in Genealogical Writing and I will consistently stick to it until someone with more genealogical authority points me in the direction of an already-established rule.