Branches down to the divergence to the next significant (e.g. extant) sister are considered stem-groupings of the clade, but in principle each level stands on its own, to be assigned a unique name. For a fully bifurcated tree, adding a group to a tree also adds an additional (named) clade, and potentially a new level. Specifically, also extinct groups are always put on a side-branch, not distinguishing whether an actual ancestor of other groupings was found.

The techniques and nomenclature of cladistics have been applied to disciplines other than biology. (See phylogenetic nomenclature.)

Cladistics findings are posing a difficulty for taxonomy, where the rank and (genus-)naming of established groupings may turn out to be inconsistent.

Originally conceived, if only in essence, by Willi Hennig in a book published in 1950, cladistics did not flourish until its translation into English in 1966 (Lewin 1997). Today, cladistics is the most popular method for inferring phylogenetic trees from morphological data.

If this is accurate, then the last common ancestor of turtles and birds lived later than the last common ancestor of lizards and birds. Since the cladograms show two mutually exclusive hypotheses to describe the evolutionary history, at most one of them is correct.

Lemurs and tarsiers may have looked closely related to humans, in the sense of being close on the evolutionary tree to humans. However, from the perspective of a tarsier, humans and lemurs would have looked close, in the exact same sense. Cladistics forces a neutral perspective, treating all branches (extant or extinct) in the same manner. It also forces one to try to make statements, and honestly take into account findings, about the exact historic relationships between the groups.

The terms plesiomorphy and apomorphy are relative; their application depends on the position of a group within a tree. For example, when trying to decide whether the tetrapods form a clade, an important question is whether having four limbs is a synapomorphy of the earliest taxa to be included within Tetrapoda: did all the earliest members of the Tetrapoda inherit four limbs from a common ancestor, whereas all other vertebrates did not, or at least not homologously? By contrast, for a group within the tetrapods, such as birds, having four limbs is a plesiomorphy. Using these two terms allows a greater precision in the discussion of homology, in particular allowing clear expression of the hierarchical relationships among different homologous features.