The 5 Most Misused Words and Phrases in Genealogy

Over the past quarter century, the field of genealogy has developed its own vocabulary to describe the evolving standards. Unfortunately, some of these terms are used in other fields with slightly different meanings. Here, in no particular order, are the top five most misused words and phrases in modern genealogy.

1. “Research”:

Especially to beginning genealogists, the term “research” is equivalent to “looking for records.” The more experience one gains, the more one becomes aware of how little of the research process is actually involved in physically looking for records. Far more research is conducted after a document has been located. Research also includes

  • learning more about the record itself–its creation, background, and purpose;
  • identifying the information the record holds;
  • determining how this information applies to our research problem;
  • assessing the reliability of the information;
  • correlating the information with that held in other records previously located;
  • and deducing what clues in the record point to potential sources for more information.

In all, I would estimate that about 20% of all research is actually conducted in the physical search for records. The remaining 80% involves the forming of conclusions based on the information turned up in that physical search.

2. “Primary” and “Secondary”:

You will often hear researchers in other fields refer to primary and secondary documents or records. In genealogy, we differentiate between original records and derivative records. These terms generally correspond with what other fields call primary (original) and secondary (derivative). Since many of us learned these terms in these other fields (or even in genealogy years ago, before the current definitions evolved), it is common to hear genealogists refer to “primary” and “secondary” records.

In current usage, reliable eyewitness testimony is considered primary, while information provided by someone who was not a witness or participant is considered secondary. Experienced genealogists, who always strive to review the original record rather than a derivative source, understand that any single record can contain information of different natures. A death certificate might provide both birth and death information, for example. In most cases, while the information about the death may be primary, the birth information is secondary. This is why we discuss primary and secondary information, as opposed to primary and secondary documents.

3. “Evidence”:

The term “evidence” refers to how we apply information to our research problem. There are two kinds of evidence, as defined in modern genealogy: direct and indirect.

Direct evidence refers to information that directly answers our research question. For example, if our research question asks, “when was John born?,” then a record containing the information, explicitly stated, that John was born on 4 July 1826, would be considered as containing direct evidence.

Indirect evidence refers to information that is relevant to our question but does not directly answer it. For example, using the same question about John’s birth, we examine a series of annual tax lists. John does not appear on any tax list until 1847. We then review the tax laws of that time period, and discover that men were required to pay taxes beginning at the age of 21. The tax records do not explicitly state John’s date of birth, but we can infer that he was at least 21 years of age at this time. This appearance on the tax lists therefore constitutes indirect evidence of his date of birth.

The term “evidence” is not synonymous with either the terms “information” or “proof,” but this is how it is most often used by many genealogists. Information is held by records. Evidence is how we apply this information to our research problem. And proof is …

4. “Proof”:

We often hear from other genealogists that a certain record proves a certain fact. This is a common misunderstanding of the concept of “proof.” No record contains proof. Records contain information.

As genealogists, we identify, evaluate, and correlate the information in these records, through which process we discern each piece of information’s individual value as evidence. Eventually, we hope to reach a soundly reasoned conclusion. “Proof” refers to the documented summary of the evidence that leads to our conclusion.

The Genealogical Proof Standard, itself an often-misunderstood concept, is the measure by which we judge our proof arguments. In its most common phrasing, the Standard contains five parts: conduct a reasonably exhaustive (or extensive) search for all relevant records, completely and accurately cite all sources used, correlate and evaluate all evidence, reconcile all contradictory evidence, and form a soundly reasoned, written conclusion. The extent to which each of these parts is demonstrated and documented in the written proof argument helps to determine the probable reliability of the conclusions.

Because it is most often phrased as five “parts,” many researchers begin to think of the Genealogical Proof Standard as a five-step process: first we do a search, then cite, then correlate, etc. On the contrary, in the course of our research, these “steps” are rarely completed in order. While searching for relevant records, we must cite and evaluate each individual record as we find it. Certainly, one begins by searching for relevant records and ends with the written conclusion, but the rest of the Standard is an ongoing process. How we define relevant itself evolves with each new record located.

As we begin to form conclusions, we should honestly assess our research against the Genealogical Proof Standard to determine whether or not our conclusion is warranted by our research.

5. “Report”:

This is a dangerously misused and misunderstood term for aspiring professional genealogists. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding stems most often from genealogical software programs, which are using the same term in a different context.

When one inputs one’s information and conclusions in a genealogy database program, it is common (and recommended) practice to periodically print out this information. In all database software, the output of data into a readable format based on specific parameters is called a report. Genealogy software most often includes the ability to print this data out into a rudimentary compiled genealogy in either NGSQ or Register formats, or compiled pedigree in Sosa-Stradonitz format. These are called, by the database, “reports.”

The research report provided by a professional genealogist–and even those reports one writes for one’s personal research files–are generally not in the form of a compiled genealogy or pedigree. A compiled genealogy or pedigree may be part of the research report, but not necessarily. In my reports, genealogies or pedigrees are most often used as a system of organization or summary of conclusions rather than the body of the report itself.

A professional research report, in general terms, is a detailed, documented report of the research conducted. This would include discussions of all of the processes described above under “Research,” as well as the formation of proof arguments and full conclusions. It also includes all negative searches conducted, that is, those indexes, databases, and record groups searched where no relevant results were located. All of these would be contained in the body of a report.

Professional genealogist’s research reports also contain other sections: a reiteration of the stated goals (both long-term and short-term, if applicable), a summary of all information provided or known at the beginning of the research, a brief summary of the conclusions reached within the report usually located before the main body, and suggestions for further research.

In other words, a research report simply does not resemble the reports printed by database software. The two terms are not synonymous at all–and given the very different contexts of their usage, should not be misunderstood to be so.

These are the words and phrases I see and hear misused most often by other genealogists. What are some other terms that are commonly misused?

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “The 5 Most Misused Words and Phrases in Genealogy,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 19 Aug 2011 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

34 thoughts on “The 5 Most Misused Words and Phrases in Genealogy

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing this information…I can see how these terms and meaning can be misunderstood. This will help me tremendously. After reading this, I know now what a professional report is about…I have lots to learn, but isn’t that what life’s about? Thank you again!!

  2. Thank you so much. I have made a “note-in-my-words” about primary vs. secondary and about evidence. I am constantly confused by the first. (I understand that there is a distinction and WHY it is important, but the terms slip by me.) By rewriting your statements I have taken a step forward towards making these terms my own (as opposed to looking them up each time I try to use them). Thank you again for this clarification.

  3. Michael

    You make some valid points, particularly where knowing and understanding the origin and purpose of a document is concerned. Years ago I had a client who wanted me to confirm how two families who had once resided in adjoining counties in Virginia were related. He had letters between them, dating back to the 1840s, which always began “Dear Cousin”. While the former adjoining residences suggested they knew themselves to be related even if how was never stated in the letters, I eventually discovered their knowledge of each other was the result of participating in a failed lawsuit to claim a “lost fortune” in England, and in my opinion, that suit failed because of the incompetence of the attorneys, quick to solicit retainers from anyone willing to listen to them, but slow to make any effort to collect copies of legal documents needed to prove the claim that were largely extent when the suit was first filed, i.e., before the Civil War. At least I have found no evidence the lawyers tried to collect any records.

    I might even say that “motive” should be included in how any record is evaluated. I recently had a case where I was able to prove that statement of heirs recorded in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1976, was false. This was first suggested to me by the fact that the document did not follow the typical syntax of such records, i.e., while stating that their ownership resulted from the death of one prior owner, presumably without surviving issue, there was no actual statement of that, and though it was not necessary that I specifically identify surviving issue, I did document issue. Another deceased heir was protrayed as the mother of the other two when she was in fact the mother of only 1, meaning there were other heirs who were not acknowledged. Finally, the statement identified 5 individuals as the “living” children of that third person, who had had 13 children, with 6 of the deceased children survived by issue who were not acknowledged. I subsequently learned that the omissions, at least in terms of the deceased children of the 3rd owner and their issue, were the result of a family feud!

    I discuss, from my own perspective, some of these same points in articles, beginning with “The Importance of Using Original Records”, that are posted in Learn from Experts at Using the following link, they are free to the public: -

  4. One of the better articles I’ve read lately. I really enjoyed and appreciate your analysis. Even though I know all this stuff it’s still nice to have it laid out in front of me. I’ll be bookmarking this post.

  5. Nicely done, Michael.

    You ask, “What are some other terms that are commonly misused?” One is “probate” as the general term for “estate.” “Probate” is actually a preliminary part of most estate proceedings. When a decedent left a will, it must be proved (“probated”) in a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding (depending on the governing jurisdiction); then executor(s) can be appointed “with the will annexed” usually after posting a performance bond, and often charged by a Court with filing accounts within a given period of time. A secondary use of the term is proving who the lawful heirs are to either an intestate or testate estate. This must be determined before the estate can be fully administered (i.e., division of real property; distribution of assets after payment of debts and fees). Sometimes heirs go to court concerning determination of who the lawful heirs are, or disputing validity or terms of a will; such proceedings could be considered part of “probate.” The activities of the estate administrator(s) or executor(s) are not “probate,” but create many very useful estate records.

    • That’s true – I have seen some genealogists refer to the estate administration process generally as “probate.”

      On the other hand, when we refer to “probate records,” it is not always so much a misunderstanding of the terms “administration” and “probate,” but perhaps derived from the term “court of probate,” which Black’s Law Dictionary defines as “In American law. A court havlng jurisdiction over the probate of wills, the grant of administration, and the supervision of the management and settlement of the estates of decedents, including the collection of assets, the allowance of claims, and the distribution of the estate. In some states the probate courts also have jurisdiction of the estates of minors. lncludlng the appolntment of guardians and the settlement of their accounts, and of the estates of lunatics, habitual drunkards, and spendthrifts. And in some states these courts possess a limited jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases. They are also called ‘orphans’ courts’ and ‘surrogate’s courts.'” [2d Ed. (1910), p. 291] So in the sense of the records of a court of probate, “probate records” would, in my opinion, accurately apply to all aspects of administration and guardianship, which is how most genealogists use the term.

  6. I believe most beginning and early genealogists are shocked when I tell them how little time I spend actually working on record retrieval. When someone asks what I do and I tell them I’m a professional genealogist, I know that what they imagine that record retrieval (supposedly, the “fun” part) is what I am actually doing. In my own vocabulary, I call the preparation for and the record retrieval research. The items under bullet points in your first paragraph, I refer to as analysis and goes hand in hand with the client report or genealogy that I am writing.

    I also want to note the change in what we look at first now. I was taught that research began in the library with derivative records. With so many original records digitized and available online and the ability of researchers in Salt Lake City to scan records and send them quickly in a cloud–I spend less and less time in libraries. Why look at deed abstracts when I can have the deed indexes scanned and sent in order to determine what deeds need to be pulled? Even three years ago, I would have balked if I prepared a report without any derivatives except perhaps the county history unless there was a large void in originals. Now, even the use of the county history becomes iffy because I’m using the original records it is based on.

  7. Great post, my friend! Strengthens my position that you are an outstanding writer. One point: birth dates on a death certificate could be primary information if the informant was a parent. And I often hear people still refer to “original and secondary sources” too, since that’s what many of us were taught growing up in school.

    • Thanks , Robyn!

      Very good point about the birth dates on a death certificate. I think if you do this long enough, you will see every possible variation of original/derivative/primary/secondary etc. My purpose with the examples is to illustrate a single possibility, not every potential possiblity… ; )

      The difference is that when we were learning about “primary sources” and “secondary sources” in school, in most cases they were not talking about individual original records. They would call an encyclopedia a secondary source but a printed interview a primary source. They didn’t expect us to be out digging in trunks in the basements of courthouses and archives. I was recently arguing with a person with a Master’s in Early Childhood Development (a pre-K teacher) who had been taught even at that post-grad level that a journal article describing original research by the author was a “primary source.” I agree (as we all would) that this would be primary information about the experiment, but it would be a derivative source–his results originally appeared (at the very least) in the draft he submitted to the journal. The published article would be derivative. This distinction was completely lost on her.

  8. Michael,

    I cannot agree with you more in your response to Robyn’s comments. While working for the DAR, I processed an application for membership on an ancestor whose only proof of service was an account in the official papers of the state of Maryland of his courtmartial for being AWOL with his verbally assaulting his captain during the “trial” which also constituted insubordination. I advised her the application could not be approved because the charge of AWOL in particular was serious enough that had he been a member of the Continental Line (regular army) and not the militia (Natiional Guard), he could have been executed. Her response–nowhere in the document were the phrases AWOL, assaulting a superior officer or insubordination actually used!

  9. Hi, Michael,

    I homeschool my daughters, and just yesterday in one of the social studies books the word “evidence” was defined as proof. I had to explain that evidence is NOT proof, it simply adds information toward proving something. I gave an example (which eludes me now) that showed just because you have something that suggests an occurrence, there are usually always other possibilities, therefore the item is not proof, but evidence.

    Thanks for your posts. Always informative.

  10. I have enjoyed both your posting and the comments regarding the same.

    Earlier today I met with a new client who commented upon the fact that records he has found on his family are not consistent in the spelling of the name and I began to speak to him some of the possible reasons for the same, and in the course of the same, it occurred to me that that there are yet 2 more words that are potential candidates for the 5 most misused in genealogy: Senior and Junior.

    Too often I have overheard someone discover or or received a message from someone regarding a record identifying an individual as “John Doe” Junior and they immediately think they have found the name of that individual’s father.

    Not necessarily. Historically, those terms were used strictly in the sense that they are still used to refer to a student’s advancement in high school or college, namely, a “Senior” is merely older than a “Junior”. Furthermore, the usage was not life-long, but dictated by circumstance. Let one of the two individuals die or move away, and the terms ceased to be used until another individual of the same name came of age or moved into the county and a need arose to distinguish him from either from the older man or longer resident, respectively. One must be very careful because if an individual was married more than once and had issue by each marriage, it would be possible for grandchildren from the first marriage to be older than children of a later marriage, and if the eldest grandson has the same given name as the youngest son, it would be the grandson who would be called “Senior”!

  11. Even more basic words used and often confused because those in each pair are (or can be) closely related yet very different:
    Source & resource,
    Genealogy & Family history.
    Clear, precise, explanations such as you have given for the “Five Most Misused . . . ” would be helpful.

  12. These words have such specific meanings that I wonder about accuracy and readability in reports. I know terminology is important, but what are the umbrella words that get the sentences written?

      • Sometimes nuances require so many words that the sentence gets bogged down, or a fairly simple explanation takes a long paragraph to explain precisely. How do you simplify for readability? I need to look for an example; can I do it later? I should be copyediting and not enjoying conversation right now…

      • I think I understand what you mean — this is just an aspect of good, quality writing. Nearly all professionals, regardless of career, will need to learn and develop their writing skills. For genealogists, this is even more important, because written reports, case studies, family histories, etc., are our main means of communicating the results of our research.

        Personally, I try to write in short sentences in my report, wherever possible. Each sentence only needs one thought. There is also no need to use a long paragraph to explain a simple concept. For example, rather than stating, “The death certificate contains primary information concerning the date and cause of death, but secondary information concerning the date and place of birth. Primary information is information that …” — try simply writing, “The subject’s son John provided the information on his father’s death certificate. Though he may have been present at his father’s death, he could not have been present at his father’s birth. This affects the reliability of this information. … ” Though the “technical terms” are not used, the concepts are expressed in an understandable manner.

        The key to all writing is “Know your audience!”

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  14. Great post Michael!

    No matter how many years I do this, I still sometimes find myself getting caught up in the record hunt and having to go back later and do the ‘research’! I’ve posted the GPS just above my monitor to remind me that the records are just the beginning and that I always get far more out of actually writing a report than the time I put into it.

  15. Pingback: How do I cite a genealogy research conclusion? « Planting the Seeds

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