Home > Genealogy > Beginning Genealogy > Standards
Home > Genealogy > Intermediate Genealogy > GEDCOMs > Standards

What are Standards?

Beginning Genealogy:

How to Start

Links to 11 great sites

Good Queries

Grandfathers in Queries


Geezer Skills

Beginning Internet Skills

Off the web

People after 1900


Mailing Lists

The LDS 1880

Googling your Ancestors

Related Sections:
Main Genealogy Page
Intermediate Genealogy
Essays on Genealogy
Biography questions

Other Sections:
Christmas Letters
Misc. Essays
Peace Corps
Web Design


Standards are nothing more, and nothing less, than doing things a consistent way. They are all around us. For instance, a GE light bulb will fit in a Sylvania socket, and vice versa, because the thread size for light bulbs in this country is standard. Automobiles are full of standards too. Imagine flying into Chicago and having the lady at the Hertz counter tell you "Good Evening, Mr. McCorkle. Your car is ready. Oh, by the way, here in Illinois the brake is on the right and the accelerator is on the left. Be careful - it's starting to snow."

Back to genealogy, and your data. Having some standards is more important than which ones you have. For example, I never abbreviate state names. You might always abbreviate them. Suppose RootsWeb got a great new data base of Pennsylvania births, deaths and marriages. We would both want to use the custom report feature of our genealogy programs to list everyone we had from Pennsylvania, then check the list against the data to see if we could fill in some missing facts. We could both use the state as the selection criteria in the custom report. You could look with 10 less keystrokes than I could, since you would use "PA" and I "Pennsylvania". Someone who used "Pa" (no period), "Pa." (with a period), "Penn", "Penn." and "Pennsylvania" interchangeably would have a harder time listing all of the individuals who were from the Keystone State.

Some standards to consider:

Place names

  • Abbreviations: Do you abbreviate the state or spell it out? If you spell it out it takes longer to type, but it is clearer. WA, for instance, means Washington State in the US of A but Western Australia down in kangaroo land. USA can be the U of SA or the US of A, depending on whether you mean the Union of South Africa or the United States of America.

  • Country: Do you include the nation, for places in the US of A? (Substitute your native land if you are reading this from abroad.)

  • County:If you know the county but not the town, do you use a leading comma or spell out county? (, Monroe, IL or Monroe County, Illinois).

  • Qualifiers: There are three words most of us use; "of", "prob" and "poss". Do you put them in front or behind of the place name?
    (prob) Springfield, Monroe, Ohio
    Springfield, Monroe, Ohio (prob)
    If you list events by place, putting the word last will lump the confirmeds and the possibles by the place. Putting the word first will lump all the possibles together.

  • Cemeteries: Putting the name first looks better:
    Peaceful Gardens Cem, Beloit, Rock, Wisconsin
    Peaceful Gardens Cem, Newtown, Livingston, Illinois
    Peaceful Gardens Cem, Reno, Washoe, Nevada

    Putting the city first means you can see at a glance who is buried in a given city, and, if you happen to go there on business, you can spend the afternoon looking up tombstones:
    Beloit, Rock, Wisconsin - Baptist Cem
    Beloit, Rock, Wisconsin - Peaceful Gardens Cem
    Beloit, Rock, Wisconsin - Zion Cem

People's names

  • Unknown maiden names. We all have a will, where our fourth great grandfather Ebenezer mentions his loving wife Betsey. What do you use for her surname? "xxxx", "????", "(Mrs. Smith)" or "LNU" all work. (Be warned - if you use LNU and GNU for Last Name Unknown and Given Name Unknown, sooner or later some prankster will write to ask you why your ancestor GNU Smith was named after a wildebeest.)

  • Unknown first names. You can use "Daughter" and "Son" for children who died young, "Mr", "Mrs" or "Miss" for older people, or a catch-all set of characters. "xxxx", "????" and "----" are all common. They all show that the given name wasn't left blank by mistake. The first five add a smidgen of information.

  • No surname. Sooner or later you'll get a link back to Eric the Red or William the Conqueror. Do you leave the surname blank or stick a title in there?


You have all seen those WFT estimates of someone born between 1812 and 1967. You can do better, sometimes, or leave the unknown dates blank. Since many search engines have date arguments, estimated dates are useful. I try to put a note on each individual which explains how I estimated the dates. A range is more informative than "abt". Does "abt 1750" mean 1749-1751, 1745-1755, 1740-1760 or 1700 - 1800?

Here is how I estimate dates.

  • Birth dates. People are usually 16 to 40 when they have their children. If someone was born in 1840, there is a good chance the parents were born 1800 - 1824.

  • Marriage dates. First marriages usually happen when the people are between the ages of 16 and 32. If a lady was born in 1804, she probably married 1820 - 1836.

  • Spouse's birth dates. People usually marry someone who is within 10 years of themselves, at least for first marriages. I have a lot of people born in 1843 whose spouses were born 1833 - 1853.

Those, at least, are the numbers I use. You may want to expand or tighten the span. Again, the important thing isn't which standard you use, but that you have one and follow it consistently.

You can extend the 16 - 40 age "guess-timate" to 32 - 80 for grandparents or grandchildren, but that gets ridiculous soon. I sometimes use the phrase "x gen bef yyyy", as in "2 gen bef 1860", to mean "two generations before 1860". In my family the generations average 33 years. If I find a person on the net with the same name as one of my individuals, who I have as born "2 gen bef 1860", and he is born anywhere between 1770 and 1820, I know he's worth investigating.


This bears repeating - that you have standards, and apply them consistently, is more important than which specific standards you use.

Problems, comments or complaints? Need an opinion? Send E-mail to:
This page updated: June 21, 2014