Why English names of species should ALWAYS be capitalised

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Thursday 19 August 2021 15:59

So this has been a pet hate of mine for years. And after a rant on Twitter recently, I thought it was best to put all my thoughts down on this in one place. Firstly, this is not a rant at inexperienced naturalists,  those with a passing interest or those new to the subject. This is very much directed at those who are intentionally spelling the names of species in lower case. It's mainly nature conservation charities, natural history writers and journalists. And of course, Wikipedia! New nature conservation projects that start up are now incorrectly following this trend and there isn't really a resistance pushing back on this. Just because its written like this on Wikipedia, it really doesn't mean it's right!

But before anyone says it, I am 100% pro scientific names. This isn't about that. This is about having a standardised, scientific and useful structure to how we write about species in English. Quite often, I would find any scientific names would be kicked out of any writing I did BUT on top of this, the correctly capitalised English names would be written in lower case. It's infuriating. I'm also not talking here about globalised names like Eurasian Nuthatch. It's a Nuthatch as far as I am concerned. But that's a different argument. 

Since I started this blog over eleven years ago, I have only ever displayed just the English names, ONLY when they are in regular use. So, for macro moths, butterflies, dragonflies, crickets etc. Beyond that I tend to use English names with the scientific name or just the scientific name if there is no standardised/regularly used English name at all. Many people new to entomology will not know that many English names have been created in recent years and are not in wide use by entomologists. This can lead to a difficult situation where newcomers are talking a different language to specialists. For this reason, I am not condoning using English names over scientific names at all and I encourage beginners to not be afraid of scientific names and to embrace them even. 

This is is simply about having a standardised approach to how we write these common names. The dumbing down of English names and the resistance against using scientific names are connected though. They are both areas we are failing in our nature writing, assuming people can't cope with anything complex. We are pandering to the lowest common denominator and it's a big part of why so many complex issues in conservation are so poorly understood by the general public. 

But get this, the natural world is REALLY, REALLY complicated. Simple solutions to complex problems do not work. In fact they are really harmful. So we should be embracing complexity and nuance.

I digress. Here's why it's a bad idea to write species names in English in lower case.

It's confusing

I once wrote a piece about Scarce 7-spot Ladybirds. The name was reduced to scarce 7-spot ladybird and an image was sourced of a 7-spot ladybird with the adjective scarce put in front of it. As you know, 7-spot Ladybird is not scarce. In fact, it's my most frequently recorded invertebrate. While Scarce 7-spot Ladybird is indeed quite scarce. A totally different species with a very different ecology.

But this works the other way around too. I once had my adjectives in front of scientific names mistaken for species names in a report. Well, if your house style is to do this, why would you assume any otherwise? Another reason to not have such a ridiculous 'house style' in the first place, especially when you have limited knowledge of the species you are publishing information on. It went like this. I had written something like "the scarce deadwood click beetle Ampedus elongantulus". Now the scientific name was discarded to find the text now talking about the 'scarce deadwood click beetle' as if it were a species name. This was done to a number of species from some text I had written. Infuriating!

There is more info in these capitals than some people realise

We have three species of forester in the UK (metallic green day-flying moths). Yes, you read that right. It's lower case because I am not referring to a species here, in fact I am referring to three species from two genera. They are; Cistus Forester, Scarce Forester and the Forester. It's very easy to get the Forester in the strict sense of the species confused with forester in the generic sense. There's the rub. There is meta data in those capitals telling you that it's a species. Distinct from being a genus, family or some other way of grouping things together. They are all shown at the top of this post but here is the Forester, perhaps the hardest one to find in Sussex.

And not far behind the lower case names is the abandonment of hyphens

Not always the case but if hyphens are going to be dropped or used incorrectly, it's often when species are written in lower case. Take for example the plant White Beak-sedge. In lower case it reads white beak-sedge and if you drop the hyphen, it's now white beak sedge. Now how can you tell what genus that's in? Is it a sedge (Carex) or a beak-sedge (Rhynchospora). There is yet more more meta data here. And you know what? No one should get to take that away and leaved behind some reduced form of a name that has less information in it, in the name of 'style' or easy reading. 

The arguments for using lower case are utterly unconvincing

They are: it's too complicated. Rubbish. Is it too complicated to write your name, a book, a film or a place correctly? Of course it isn't. It is only confusing because we now have two systems (and some other variants in between these two systems) working concurrently. It's no surprise when newcomers reach for Wikipedia that they start writing them incorrectly in lower case. It doesn't read well. Again, total nonsense. Just look up and see if it reads badly. Or read British Wildlife or any of the other publications that get it right. No one ever died from reading a capital letter or two in the middle of sentence. Capitals are going out of fashion. Yeah this one really doesn't wash with me for all the reasons under 'it's too complicated'. I'm aware language can change but not all change is good or should be embraced. It's grammatically incorrect. And finally we get to the real sticking point. They are not proper nouns (apparently). Hence why we end up with the hideous chimera of naming styles, such as Cetti's warbler and Mediterranean gull. Yuck! And here I will explain why I believe it is perfectly correct to think of these names as proper nouns...

There can be no better use of proper nouns than to denote species names

When we talk about species, we are not talking about individuals. We are talking about genetically distinct life forms, each with a near enough UNIQUE genetic code. It's the code we are really talking about. This is therefore a more than adequate reason to use proper nouns when referring to them. It would also draw the naming inline with the scientific nomenclature to some extent. It would result in less confusion.

These names mean a lot to naturalists

I have met very few recorders, naturalists and entomologists who actually like the lower case names, literally less than five people I've encountered have ever strongly stuck up for it. While I have met hundreds of naturalists who detest it. To me, it is a significant part of the name, in many cases taken away from us by people working outside of the field. And as said above, there is a reduced name left behind, with considerable margins for error. I just can't keep quiet about it any more. So I decided to get organised.

I mean how can a Subaru Forester be seen as a 'compound proper noun' but a Cistus Forester isn't? Yet more examples of how the natural world is seen as inferior to things that have been created by people. OK, I see why Subaru is a proper noun, it's a make. Fair enough but the Forester part? Each of those vehicles coming off the production line follows a blueprint that makes them similar to one another but different to other models of that make. So how is that any different to what I'm talking about here? The grammatical rules are not clear cut and as mentioned above, can you think of a better example than to use them? Language is fluid and flexible. We should use a set of rules IF they work in favour of bettering that area of language. There is a clear case for that here.

Having a standardised and structured approach to English names would therefore benefit recording and the natural world. With less ambiguity on how names are written we can bring some of the rigour that we have from scientific names into the English names of species. There is no better time to be having this conversation as so many new people are getting into wildlife recording and ecological restoration and as mentioned above, they are usually hungry for English names of species at first.

What can you do?

Well if you're having this thrust upon you by your organisation or boss, tell them that you're not happy with it and why. Try and push them in the right direction. Feel free to send them this blog.

When you write an article for someone, tell them how the names are going to be written. Use it as a negotiating point for giving someone the work. You can only use my photo or text if you spell the name correctly etc.

If these things don't work, just write them correctly and see what happens. If enough people have to spend ages putting names into lower case then surely they will get the message one day. It's the naturalists providing the content, I really think we have some leverage here.

When new projects are set up, give people a steer in the right direction. There is a tendency to reach for Wikipedia. But you would be better reaching for a field guide, British Wildlife, the NBN gateway species accounts or the JNCC Taxon Designations spreadsheet.

Let's properly get organised. If there is anyone out there that feels as passionately about this as I do, drop me a message or a comment and you can join a growing number of us who are proper fed up with this.

You might also detect a little anger in my tone here. You'd be right! To have this inflicted upon you from the very first piece of writing you ever did for years is utterly infuriating. But we did work on Sussex Wildlife Trust over the years and they have brilliantly switched to writing species in capitals, a really positive move and this shows how much this particular wildlife trust puts recording, wildlife and science over style and trends. A really progressive step forward. So it can be done! 

Who would you rather be on the side of? The style gurus and the grammar police or the passionate naturalists who actually write the content and know what they are talking about? 

I really don't think this should ever have been a 'choice'. We should have one system.

The Revolution Starts Here!

22 Response to "Why English names of species should ALWAYS be capitalised"

Unknown Says:

I have never abandoned capitalisation.

Gibster Says:

Always capitals for the vernacular words, unless it follows a hyphen (exceptions being things like Herb-Robert where the word after the hyphen is a proper noun/named after a proper noun). Always a capital for the genus in scientific names and never ever ever for the binomial (my own pet hate). It's just that bloody simple.

I would be mortified and angered if anything I wrote had the capitals replaced by lower-case, particularly if it had my name in amy way attributed to it. You do kind of expect an editorial team to correct any grammatical/spelling errors, that's their job. Any editor should be steadfast to the correct way of language usage, otherwise they aren't fit to edit.

Dawn Nelson Says:

I'm also a 100% with you. Keep up the good ranting.

MiceElf Says:

As a complete amateur but pretty knowledgeable about written English, I absolutely agree.
Perhaps send this to Michael Rosen who is a grammarian, poet and academic and has thousands of followers

Audrey Turner Says:

I'm with you 100%, this is one of my biggest annoyances.

Simon Leather Says:

Yes totally agree - just had the same argument with my Editor at OUP!

Africa Gomez Says:

Totally agree, I've been using capitalisation to avoid confusion for a long time, and now I'm even more convince, I'll even include it in my lectures next to slide how to write scientific names!

Barry Says:

Of course you are correct. My best example of confusion with lowercase is little ringed plover. Great that you have widened this discussion.

Honeybee Says:

Agree. The most recent abomination I discovered had been carried out on my writing was the de-capitalisation of Essex Skipper to essex skipper. Grrr...

Dawlish Warren Says:

100% agree, always use capitals. House styles and the subsequent dumbing down of language has led to the decline in conservation knowledge and the need for the Lost Words publications.

Keep causing good trouble!

David M. Gascoigne, Says:

It irritates me too and I fully concur with your position on this issue.

Solly Says:

I contribute wildlife and nature articles to The Spectator and they change my capital letters into lower case so when I mentioned a Great White Egret they changed it to great white egret, to make it sound like a really good white egret. Worse, they leave scientific names completely in lower case, no capital letter at the start of the genus. I have mentioned this to them but it's house style.

Unknown Says:

Totally agree
Derek Whiteley

Le Pré de la Forge Says:

It is pure laziness not to capitalise common names... using the excuse of "house style" (Spectator)and as for the OUP.... makes me want to do an "angry of tunbridge wells"!!

I agree with "Perhaps send this to Michael Rosen who is a grammarian, poet and academic and has thousands of followers"... I am sure he'd be onto it like a shot!

Unknown Says:

Very much in agreement

Unknown Says:

Couldn't agree more!

Unknown Says:

Good advice, thank you.

Alastair Says:

Graeme, you've convinced me, on the basis that without capitalisation the meaning can be confused. I find the omission and incorrect capitalisation of scientific names more annoying though. The examples you give explain the point clearly. Interestingly "The" has been dropped from the English names of most moths, have a look in South you'll see what I mean. It is now even being dropped from Forester. Personally, I prefer The Forester where "The" has that adjective function but becomes a noun on being incorporated into the name. But convention seems to put this in lower case, perhaps to avoid the The Forester. Butterfly Conservation just use Forester now and perhaps that's preferable. Bloody hell, it's a confusing language! And, of course an evolving one.

Dawn Nelson Says:

keep plant names capitlaised

Ged Says:

I totally agree with this. I have never understood this convention. Indeed, in the past capitals were used extensively and to my mind most usefully. To illustrate this I’ll add a page from my copy of Francis Price’s « The British Carpenter » of MDCCXXXV, if I can. If not, can someone explain how?

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