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November 27, 2014

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Genealogy:

Words matter; wield them with precision

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

"She's wonderful, she's marvelous, she's fabulous, she's beautiful."

So sang Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits as he was "Leaning on a Lamp Post" in 1966. Noone wasn't the first fellow to pine at the lamp post and wait for a certain little lady to come by. Noone's words reveal more about his vocabulary than they do about the object of his devotion. George Formby originally composed the song in 1942 for the musical, "Me and My Girl." Formby's more sophisticated phrasing follows: "Oh she's resolutely dutiful and super-strong and beautiful." His words conveyed more.

Perhaps the British Invasion pop group feared their teenaged fans might be put off by "super-strong" women who were "resolutely dutiful"; teens of the 1960s did not measure coolness or sex appeal by how strong or dutiful a female might be. The words the Hermits substituted—wonderful, marvelous, fabulous (the Hermits kept beautiful)—are syntactically interchangeable and symmetrically arranged. Most importantly to their record producers, the words worked in the song and appealed to the 1960s teenyboppers the Hermits targeted. The record did well for the Hermits and the producers. But genealogists can do better than to use the song as a model for English usage.

Genealogists use words as we report particulars of past lives. The words we select matter. Precise words add vibrancy and texture to our work, while lesser words drain color from a verbal sketch and leave it flat.

The writer who peppers her work with adjectives like wonderful, marvelous, fabulous, and beautiful runs the risk of applying inappropriate judgments even while she says nothing. For example, instead of writing that the 18th-century document is fabulous and is housed in a wonderful archives, a careful writer might substitute more precise language. Her report might state that the 18th-century, first-person account is legible and in pristine condition, and it unambiguously chronicles how Reginald Flatbottom assembled his large estate out of separate parcels of land. Also, the archivist in charge allows researchers to use digital photography, retrieves documents quickly, and knows her collection well. The reader now knows precisely why the researcher considers the document fabulous and the archives wonderful.

A reader may question the impartiality and competence of a writer who makes liberal use of absolutes and superlatives such as all, none, best, worst, always, and never. Life seldom (but not "never") presents situations in which solutions are all or none, best or worst, or always or never. One can do better than to say the conditions in the archives were the worst ever. Be specific. The collection might be moldy, disintegrating, and rat-infested; it might smell like a feral cat lived, gave birth, and died in it. Its condition might be the worst the researcher has seen. But likely it is not the worst ever.

Similarly, a writer would probably be incorrect to say that an archives never allows digital photography. Current policy might not allow general researchers (including the genealogist writing the report) to photograph the collection. However, former policy may have allowed it. Too, the chief archivist likely has discretion to allow exceptions. She may seldom choose to exercise the privilege, or she may routinely grant permission to researchers in residence but not to one-time or occasional users.

Meaningless words such as so, very, and really add bloat and have no place in a professional report. Very, very good genealogists try really, really hard to avoid using these words so much.

When we carefully we select our words we more precisely convey our thoughts. Our reports should accurately state what we intend to say. If readers do not understand, then we did not write clearly enough.

Stefani Evans is a Board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News 2275 Corporate Circle, Suite 300, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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