Species’ life histories are often classified on a continuum from ‘‘fast’’ to ‘‘slow’’, yet there is no consistently used definition of this continuum. For example, some researchers include body mass as one of the traits defining the continuum, others factor it out by analysing body-mass residuals, a third group performs both of these analyses and uses the terms ‘‘fast’’ and ‘‘slow’’ in both ways, while still others do not mention body mass at all. Our analysis of European and North American freshwater fish, mammals, and birds (N = 2,288 species) shows the fundamental differences between life-history patterns of raw data and of body-mass residuals. Specifically, in fish and mammals, the number of traits defining the continuum decreases if body-mass residuals are analysed. In birds, the continuum is defined by a different set of traits if body mass is factored out. Our study also exposes important dissimilarities among the three taxonomic groups analysed. For example, while mammals and birds with a ‘‘slow’’ life history have a low fecundity, the opposite is true for fish. We conclude that our understanding of life histories will improve if differences between patterns of raw data and of body-mass residuals are acknowledged, as well as differences among taxonomic groups, instead of using the ‘‘fast–slow continuum’’ too indiscriminately for any covarying traits that appear to suit the idea.