A capital offence

My camera card reader didn’t arrive yesterday, so that means because of the long weekend it will be Tuesday at the earliest before it shows up. I’ve got a collection of photos building up on the card, so I’m looking forward to it finally arriving! Over the last little while I’ve encountered a few times a particular pet peeve of mine. I thought perhaps since I was still waiting on the photos from my camera, it would be an opportunity to mention it here.

The pet peeve involves the capitalization (or lack of it) of common names of species. Frequently I see instances where the author has used all small letters when writing out the common name of a bird. And it’s a pet peeve of mine for this reason: adjectives within the species name can also be used to describe animals (or plants), and so how are we to tell the difference between a description of an organism and the specific organism in question?

yellow warblers: Hooded, Blue-winged, Mourning, Kentucky, Nashville, Wilson's

Here’s an example. These are all indisputably yellow warblers. Yellow happens to be one of the most common colours in warblers, in fact, and many species sport quite a lot of it.

Yellow Warbler

But none of them are Yellow Warblers, Dendroica petechia, the species in this photo. So when someone is talking about having seen a yellow warbler in the shrubs along the trail, are they talking about Dendroica petechia or one of the others, such as Wilsonia pusilla (Wilson’s Warbler, bottom right in previoius photo)?

yellow-bellied flycatcher: Great Crested

Or how about this one. No one would argue that this is a yellow-bellied flycatcher.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

But it’s a Great Crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus, not a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Empidonax flaviventris, which is the identity of the above. In fact, the yellow-bellied flycatcher previously has a much nicer yellow belly than the actual Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Think also of the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Lewis’s Woodpecker, another red-bellied woodpecker with a much brighter and more noticably red belly.

Field Sparrow

A third example. This bird is a Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla.

field sparrows: Savannah, Song, Chipping, Eastern Towhee

But one could make the argument that all of these are also field sparrows, depending on your definition of field, a rather generic term. When someone talks about the field sparrow, are they referring to the sparrow that lives in fields, rather than those that prefer forests, or are they specifically referring to Spizella pusilla?

Green and Leopard Frogs
A green frog and a green frog.

The official convention adopted for standardized bird names in North America (and elsewhere) is to capitalize the whole species name (with the exception of portions following a hyphen, such as in Yellow-bellied). Interestingly, however, the same convention isn’t in place for other types of animals or plants, and the generally accepted practices for trees and mammals and everything else is to use small letters for the names. So the names would be written as silver maple and black bear.

This really bugs me – how does one then differentiate between the green frog (Rana clamitans) and the other green frog (leopard frog, Rana pipiens) above? Without using scientific names, that is, which I would say the average person probably doesn’t know (for example, I had to look up every single scientific name in this post because I know practically none, even for the species I’m most familiar with). So I buck the “system”, and I capitalize all common species names anyway (I had to fight with myself not to capitalize the frog names there, by habit). And I try not to twitch too much when I find someone talking about long-eared owls and black ducks.


16 responses to “A capital offence

  1. I hear ya! Not correctly capitalizing the common name bothers me too.

    AMAZING close-up photos of these birds! Wonderful.

  2. Hi Seabrooke,

    You might be interested in (and, indeed, already aware of) this paper by Anselm Atkins (1983), who criticized the use of capitalization in bird common names, and a critical response to that paper by Eloise Potter (1984).

    The British and American Ornithological Unions both capitalize, so it is a good idea follow their conventions in writing bird common names. The “official list” of insect common names (Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms), however, does not capitalize unless derived from a proper noun. I don’t see a problem if people want to capitalize insect common names regardless, but it’s probably not fair to criticize those who don’t – they are, after all, following accepted convention for their field. I believe the same is true for botany (correct me if I am wrong on this point).

    Of course, the obvious solution is to include the scientific name, at least upon first mention :) I know how deep passions run on this debate, but if a common name (regardless of capitalization) is immediately followed by a scientific name, can there be any ambiguity with subsequent use of the common name alone? It really is a win-win – the scientists get the precision they want, and the lay public gets to use the names they are comfortable with.


  3. Interesting, I didn’t realize why some people capitalize common names and some don’t.

    I prefer Ted’s idea of using the scientific name.

  4. p.s. I should mention that I don’t capitalize insect common names (when I do use them) – not because of a strong conviction that they shouldn’t be capitalized, but rather due to my pedantic tendencies and not wanting to seem unaware of the conventions in my field. If I ever happen to write about birds, I’ll be sure to capitalize ;-)

  5. I”m not a scientist or even a particularly knowledgeable newbie but here’s what I think anyways. If it is a proper name for the beastie then it should be capitalized, for example, a Green frog. If I am describing a frog that I saw that just happened to be green, I could say it was a green frog.

  6. Seabrooke, I’m not a big fan of standardized “common” names for animals or plants. I like the regionality (i think i just made that word up, it isn’t in the spell check) of common names that often occurs in the group I study, plants. I’m not a big fan of capitalizing common names. I see your points though. Great post.


  7. I have to admit I don’t capitalize common names. I don’t capitalize “human” or “chimpanze” or “oak tree” or “photinia bush” any more than I capitalize “northern mockingbird” or “pied-billed grebe” or “yellow-rumped warbler.” Unless the common name includes a proper name (e.g. “Fraser photinia” or “Bachman’s sparrow”), I think the scientific nomenclature requires that common names be just that–common, not proper. As a writer, that’s always been my understanding, and therefore my view, of how to handle this. Then again, I could just as easily be wrong about the whole thing.

  8. I find the capitalization of common bird names a rather odd convention since it cuts against both standard English capitalization patterns and conventions for non-bird species. Some journal articles also adopt lowercase for common bird names, e.g., “yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia).” My own practice veers between the two.

  9. Thanks, PSYL – they’re all (except the frogs) photos of birds “in the hand” – that is, birds captured during a standardized banding program and photographed while being held before release. Having that sort of opportunity allows for some great photos.

    Ted – Thanks for pointing me to those papers. I didn’t realize there was an “official” list for scientific names, although I do recall that the style for plants was uncapitalized. I do agree that the obvious solution is to include scientific names, and I do that when I’m writing about anything other than birds (which I feel, at least for North American species, are sufficiently standardized and familiar to not need it).

    Rosemary and Barb – it does seem to be a matter of preference for a lot of things, and unlike the personal offense one might take at having the capital missed on one’s name (“Dear barb,”), most people seem to let it slide one way or the other.

    Tom – there is something to the regionality of names, it’s true. There are certainly some very colourful ones out there. The issue I have with the lack of standardization is how to convey to my readers what plant or other organism I’m talking about. When you say “White-tailed Deer” everybody knows to what you’re referring. However, I always feel the need to follow up plant names with the scientific name just so people can figure out what I’m referring to. And just saying “spotted jewelweed, Impatiens capensis” doesn’t really clear things up if someone has only ever known the plant as orange balsam, for instance – that person then is put to the trouble of taking the scientific name, which is Greek to most of us, and looking it up to find out what the plant really is. If someone said they encountered a bluebill, Aythya marila, while on their walk today probably the average birder wouldn’t know what they were talking about, even with the help of the scientific name.

    Jason – the difference between “oak tree” and “Northern Mockingbird” is that one is the “proper” common name and one is the general common name for the group. Even with birds, the accepted convention is that group names, for instance ducks, mockingbirds, tanagers, does not get capitalized, but the species name does, for instance Black Duck, Northern Mockingbird, Scarlet Tanager. I believe that this is only the case for birds, however, and as you say in other organisms the only capitalization is in proper names.

  10. John – I’m not sure how it goes against standard English capitalization to capitalize the proper name of a species. We use capitals for indicating proper human names – Jane Smith, not jane smith – and politically recognized locations – Toronto, Ontario, not toronto, ontario. There’s no particular reason why we should capitalize a person’s name and not a species’ name, since in my mind both are proper names used to identify a particular entity. Maybe it’s another example of humans separating ourselves from the “lower” organisms?

    The whole discussion got me thinking about how we use capitals. They are generally used to indicate something of importance. For instance, the start of a sentence, or an indication of ourselves in the letter I. i’m pretty sure we would all know what i was talking about if i stopped capitalizing anything, so it’s not vital to our understanding of the writing, at least in most cases. We capitalize our own names, and the names of cities, countries, those of our pets.

    Here’s something of interest – we capitalize the names of cars. It is a Ford Explorer sitting in our driveway, not a ford explorer, or a Toyota Prius rather than a toyota prius. Even understanding that Ford and Toyota are from proper human names, there’s no reason to capitalize explorer or prius, is there? So why do we? And why is capitalizing a model of car, effectively the proper name for a group of entities all similar to one another much the way a species is, any different than capitalizing the name of a species itself? In fact, isn’t that basically what the name of a car is, a combination of the group – Warbler, Volkswagen – and the species – Magnolia, Golf?

    The same capitalization standards are pretty much used for any brand and model. Canon Rebel. Apple MacBook. Sharp Aquos. green frog. Perhaps that offers some insight into what we place more value on – Apple MacBooks or green frogs.

  11. Thanks for everyone’s comments on this. It’s really given me pause to think about why we capitalize things the way we do in our written work. I’ve appreciated hearing everyone’s opinions, especially those that differ from my own since it’s interesting to see the issue from a different perspective.

  12. As Ted says, overall, the best thing to do is to use the scientific name, and thus prevent confusion over which species is being referred to. At the least, at the first mention of a common name, it is best to follow it in brackets with the scientific name. A recent example of why this is important is the current tracking in BC of an invasive plant species. The invasive folks know it by a particular common name, and someone recently attached a scientific name to the common name–without realizing that several plants go by this particular common name. The scientific name they chose is a species not found in BC, and that is not in the BC flora. Now, this scientific name has made it’s way into the invasive literature here. The invasive people know which plant they mean, but others don’t know what plant they are referring to, and when they look up the scientific name, are learning about the wrong species.

    However, the issue of capitalization is a separate one, and there are different naming conventions for each group. Being aware of the conventions is part of the process of learning about each group and for the professional it is important to show awareness of this. All of this is aimed a clarity and good communication, and to some degree gives an indication of the knowledge level of the user. So, for plants, common names are not capitalized, and they are not capitalized for insects or some marine invertebrates, but they are capitalized for birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

    Do the capitals really matter? I don’t think so, but using the appropriate standard does show awareness and knowledge of the subject at a professional level.

  13. Interesting discussion–and, honestly, something I’ve wondered about and never been sure, which and why?
    I think it’s important to add this distinction when noticing others’ use of common/scientific names and conventional practices–many of the bloggers writing about field observations are not the “professionals” some might be, nor would their observations be considered “literature.” I would certainly expect adherence to convention and demonstration of professional understanding in those cases–but not all.
    Blogs allow the non-professional access to this forum, regardless of level of expertise. And, I’d hate for their writings to cease, because of an uncertainty in how to present them.
    This explanation has been very helpful–and I’ll try to stick with accepted practices. I’m one to capitalize all, though, just to be safe.

  14. Seabrooke, thanks for the thoughtful article you’ve written. I found it while trying to take a stand on the capitalization of critters in our documents (which are mostly business documents, not scientific literature).

    This passage from you caught my eye:
    This really bugs me – how does one then differentiate between the green frog (Rana clamitans) and the other green frog (leopard frog, Rana pipiens) above? Without using scientific names, that is, which I would say the average person probably doesn’t know (for example, I had to look up every single scientific name in this post because I know practically none, even for the species I’m most familiar with). So I buck the “system”, and I capitalize all common species names anyway (I had to fight with myself not to capitalize the frog names there, by habit). And I try not to twitch too much when I find someone talking about long-eared owls and black ducks.

    Seabrooke, you used the words “talking” instead of writing. No one can capitalize spoken words, but we all still get the meaning. All I want in my documents is consistency. Caps on mammals, birds, herps, amphibs, plants, etc.

  15. I happened upon your site in the process of trying to find out whether common names of insects are capitalized. Stunning photographs.

    Nice to see a website devoted to something worthwhile and genuinely inspirational.

  16. As John mentioned, in many journals (especially non-bird focused) the convention is to use lowercase names (e.g. Evolution, Journal of Wildlife Management). As a student publishing in scientific papers in the field, we have to use these names depending on where we submit. I also don’t think it is necessarily incorrect.

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