Over-egging the pudding

St Bartholomews Groton
A view of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Groton, Suffolk.

I wear several hats at NEHGS. In addition to editing Vita Brevis, I am the Society’s Editor-in-Chief, with advisory roles in the Publications, Library, and Website divisions; I write and edit books, including a genealogy of the Robert Winthrop family of New York due out in 2017; and I work with the editorial teams of the Society’s magazine (American Ancestors) and the Mayflower Descendant journal. A trend I’ve noticed in some of the projects on which I have worked might be called over- or under-egging the pudding. By this I mean the habit – picked up, no doubt, from researchers’ work with genealogical software – of abbreviating terms that should be given in full or, conversely, of undue (over) emphasis. Here are three examples:

[These] abbreviations are (in my view) an eyesore…

The first, and the easiest to correct, involves the way months are used in genealogical summaries. In general, in Register style, we spell out months’ names in full. All well and good, but when it comes to writing the shortened form – in a child’s entry, perhaps – I too often see months rendered as

Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, and Dec

What’s wrong? A couple of things. This style is an artifact of genealogical programs that render months in three letter abbreviations. When it comes time to put the genealogical material into publishable form, however, these abbreviations are (in my view) an eyesore; worse, they can be misleading. The eye reads Jan for Jun, Mar for May, Jun for Jul – and, of course, in English common usage these months should all end with a period. Finally, NEHGS style deplores abbreviating months under four letters in length, and so we prefer to see

Jan., Feb., March, April, May, June, July, Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec.

[One] should automatically note these instances and correct them…

My other two examples are related to one another. In genealogical software programs, the style for locations is

Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts

We are meant to understand that Suffolk is Suffolk County, but that is not how American localities work in practice. Again, when translating one’s research into a form meant for publication, one should automatically note these instances and correct them: Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts. (I would add, further, that unless an American state has two locations with the same name, but in separate counties, listing the county name might be over-egging the pudding.)

By the same token, we should understand the nomenclature traditions in other countries. Using the example of Ipswich in Suffolk, England, it seems to me incorrect to render this place in American style: Ipswich, Suffolk County [or County Suffolk], England. In English terms, it is the town of Ipswich in [the County of] Suffolk, while the New England Boston is the city of Boston in Suffolk County.

Of course there are exceptions: the County Palatine of Durham in England is generally rendered County Durham, while the County of Devon boasts two peerages named for it: the Earls of Devon and the Dukes of Devonshire. As a rule, adding -shire to an English, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh county name is correct, but there are always traps for the unwary: Somersetshire and Dorsetshire both seem to me a bit much, while there is no way to turn Hampshire into anything but Hampshire!

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

16 thoughts on “Over-egging the pudding

  1. Spelling everything out is never excessive. Will abbreviations be understood in 25 or 50 years? I come from a medical/scientific perspective and if one “charts for the jury” it means that you put in detail and abbreviations are not detail. Everyone has their own abbreviations so SPELL IT OUT, please. There is only one Bucks County in the United States and it is in Pennsylvania. That’s fine for now but what if another state creates a Bucks County in the future? Be specific and spell it out if you want a truly archival record of your work. Same goes for idioms and collooquialisms – take the time to be specific. There is no such thing as over-egging but there is under-egging.
    Perhaps I should not have used contractions here….

  2. I appreciate this post, as I’m preparing to start the (to me) daunting task of writing my family history. But, your title for the post had me thinking it was going to be another post from Mrs. Gray’s diary…and I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t! ;o)

  3. I totally agree with Scott. I remember when my father was on the local school board and the board secretary was writing the minutes and only using abbreviations and the given names of members in recording the business conducted. My father insisted they use the person’s full name since these minutes might need to be accessed for clarification on a given topic, and the person making the motion, etc, might need to be identified. The minutes were actually part of a history of the School.

    I recently sent a Letter to the Editor of our local newspaper after trying to read the minutes of a local governmental committee and complained. It was written as though they were “texting” someone, and I could not understand the abbreviated language. I couldn’t even tell which group/committee was holding the meeting. I may be one of the few who read those minutes but I like to be able to understand what business was conducted.

  4. I came across an abbreviation in the Register that has me stymied. It’s from the writings of Rev. Hugh Adams in his listings of “Marriages,” 23:180. Can you tell me what “Anno Primo, G.R. II” means when found at the beginning of a marriage entry? I searched on Google and found references to “first cousin” but I’m not convinced. This instance seems another good reason to spell out abbreviations when possible.

    1. I haven’t seen the Register article, but that would seem to me to translate as “First Year, [in the reign of] G[eorge] R[ex] II” – ie, the first year of the reign of King George the Second, which would be from 11 June 1727 to 10 June 1728. It is not uncommon in parish registers before the 1750s (for marriages) and the 1810s (for baptisms and burials) to find years designated like this. Standard forms were provided in the registers after these dates, but before this it was up to the parish clerk/minister to record the details as they liked.

    2. Linda, I think this is a reference to the regnal years of King George II. He came to the British throne 11/22 June 1727, so this would be a date between 11/22 June 1727 and 10/21 June 1728. Does that help?

  5. Very interesting Scott, although as a British person living in England I’d caution against adding “shire” to counties. A great many of the counties don’t have (and never have had) that suffix, although some may have had it in the past but don’t use it now. The most comprehensive list that I can refer you and other readers to at short notice is in the Wikipedia link below

    Be aware too that county boundaries have frequently changed, with some counties disappearing completely, being amalgamated with others, or indeed being split up into new counties – and often being reconstituted later! A useful description of the historical context of the creation and types of county designation, as well as common abbreviations, is here:

    One last note – we rarely use “county of” etc, in describing where a town is found. We would most commonly say “Ipswich in Suffolk”, or write “Ipswich, Suffolk”. I hope that that helps!

    1. Yes, I agree with Deborah. “Shire” is usually added to a county where it might be confused with the main city (Aberdeen is in Aberdeenshire) but otherwise if it is the name of the region, it stands alone (Devon, Suffolk, etc). Only Durham is “County Durham”, but in contrast, in Ireland you have counties: “Co. Galway”, “Co. Clare” etc.

      Beware also of unexpected abbreviations: I once met an American in London who told me she was planning to visit her pen-pal in “Hants”, which is actually Hampshire. Likewise Northants, Salop (not very common any more for Shropshire?), Oxon, etc.

  6. Word’s Search and Replace function can be used for each month to easily make fix the incorrect abbreviations. Just be sure to assess each “find” before hitting “replace.” You don’t want to change a person’s name “Jan” to “Jan.” in the middle of a sentence. You can also add a space before and after the abbreviation so Word won’t find all words containing “mar” or “jun” or “dec.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.