Idle Thoughts … on the common naming of plants and animals.
Life needs rules – trust me, it does.
As we all know, it is standard practice to capitalise the common names of birds (because not all blue birds are Bluebirds) but we generally don’t do so for plants. Thus Blue Jay and not blue jay. The media mostly ignore this convention, but the media are wrong to do so.
If using Latin names then the genus is capitalised and the full name is italicised – for example Asclepias tuberosa, the butterfly weed.
So far so good … but what to do when writing about plants when some common names are also the Latin genus names? For example, in a recent blog post from the garden we wrote of milkweed (with a lower case ‘m’) and Hydrangea (capital ‘H’) as that is both the common name as well as the scientific name for the genus
BUT, and here is the difficulty, when writing about Hydrangea (scientific name for the genus) one italicises and capitalises … but if one is using the same word but with regard to the common name for this group of plants should it be italicised or not? Should it be capitalised or not?
I have searched for some guidance – and note here that for the past 68 years of my life this has not been an issue, but now I have thought about it I believe it needs a rule. The Australian government have a rather nice website under the name of “Australia’s Virtual herbarium” where they propose the following. It makes a lot of sense to me and I will adopt it (I think) until I find anything better. I particularly like the fact that they recommend capitalising common names for all plants in the same way as we do for birds. Logically, this should also apply to all organisms be they mammals, insects or fish:
On Using Common (vernacular) Names
There is no universally accepted way of writing common names. However, the following is generally recommended:
For a name used in a general sense covering a group or genus (e.g. bottlebrush, conifer, oak) start with a lower case letter; this also applies to botanical names used in a general sense e.g. banksias, camellias and acacias.
If one particular species or plant is referred to then we suggest that you use capitals for the first letter of all words, except when there is a hyphen between two words: River Red Gum (and) Lemon-scented Gum
Some publishers use lower case letters for all common names. This can lead to confusion as to what exactly constitutes the common name in a piece of text. What, for instance, is the common name in the sentence: “In the centre of the garden was a red flowering gum”?
I am supported in my belief that all common names for all living things should be capitalised – gets that out of the way – but has not helped with my question as to whether or not to italicise names that are identical for both scientific and common usage when only using the word for the common name.
True Nerds will also enjoy looking at this short paper. It reaches much the same conclusions but for somewhat different reasons:
Isn’t life confusing … what naming protocol do you follow?