Sep 16, 2022

Spelling and Punctuation and Genealogy

September 16, 2022

When I was a high school English teacher, I was strict about requiring perfect spelling and punctuation from my students. I threatened them with grade reductions for those errors. After all, I reasoned, spelling and punctuation would be important in any of their future endeavors.


Boy, was I wrong! I no longer teach English. Nowadays, I spend much of my time doing genealogy. Turns out that spelling and punctuation need to be ignored when it comes to genealogical research. Folks in earlier eras were often illiterate, or semi-literate. The records from those times show it.


When it comes to spelling, names were fluid. I’ve seen the surname Loynes spelled as Loines, Lones, Lines, Leans, Leines and half a dozen other ways. The different spellings referred to the same family.  Punctuation was even worse. Some documents were liberally sprinkled with commas and periods. They ended up looking like a sesame seed bagel. Others used no punctuation. I’ve tried to decipher page after page of a document without a hint of a punctuation mark.


It took me a while to realize that those rules of punctuation and spelling that I’d held so dear when I taught school needed to be tossed out when it came to genealogy. The eye-opener for me came when I was looking at deeds for a fourth great grandfather who bought and sold land in Pennsylvania around the time of the Revolution.


The index showed a lot of deeds for Parshall Terry. There was an additional listing for Parshall Terry Taylor. At first, I ignored that deed, but Parshall Terry is not a common name. It’s usually only found in my family line. I decided to check out the Taylor deed since I assumed it might be for a grandson of my ancestor, a child of one of his daughters.


Closer reading of the deed revealed that it was for the right time and place to be my ancestor Parshall Terry. What was the deal with it? I suddenly remembered reading a family history about the Terry’s that mentioned that the Revolutionary War era Parshall Terry could make a man’s jacket in a day. The deed wasn’t for a Parshall Terry Taylor. It was for Parshall Terry, Tailor. Deeds often used an occupation to separate men with the same name.


Since the deed misspelled tailor, and there were no commas to separate Taylor from the name, I’d made the mistake of assuming that it was all one name. Instead, the deed gave me proof of Parshall Terry’s occupation and helped me figure out exactly when and where he sold land.


Turns out that spelling and punctuation don’t count when it comes to genealogical research. You need to look past them when deciphering documents. I don’t care what your high school English teacher said about spelling and punctuation. She was wrong! At least when it comes to genealogy.


Carol Stetser