Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How to Properly Write Scientific and Common Names

Carl von Linné, also known more commonly by the Latin-ized Carlos Linnaeus, created binomial numenclature to ease confusion caused by inconsistent common names.
Linnaean classification rankings
One difficulty that I have noticed many people have is how to properly write scientific names. Not only that, but many people also have a lot of difficulty when it comes to how to properly write common names as well.

To begin with, I will be demonstrating how to properly state scientific names using the dog. The dog is classified at a subspecies of wolf. Wolves have the scientific name of Canis lupus, and thus the dog is classified therein as Canis lupus familiaris. When expressing a scientific name, this is always the format that is used. The generic name (i.e. genus name or the first word) is capitalized and the specific epithet (i.e. specific name or species name or the second word) is never capitalized. Many people will mistakenly capitalize the specific epithet, but under Linnaean rules it must never be capitalized. In addition, the subspecific epithet (i.e. subspecies designation, subspecies name, or the third word) is written the same way that the specific epithet is, and thus never capitalized. Another important point to remember is the fact that the scientific name must be italicized. It is also acceptable to underline the name, but italics are to be preferred.

To continue with this, all of the higher-order classification names are to be capitalized, but are not to be set in italics or underlined. So, for example, dogs are in the Family Canidae, not in the Family Canidae or the family canidae.

Next, let's talk about common names. This is another point that people have issues with, and honestly I think there is a lot more confusion over how to properly write common names than scientific names! I honestly did not learn the rules until near the end of my Bachelors degree, so I can see why there is so much difficulty. For example, I see a lot of people doing what I used to do: capitalize all common names unless I know they aren't capitalized. This was especially true when I was speaking of dogs. So, I would talk about German Shepherd Dogs, Basenjis, Dalmatians, Jack Russell Terriers, Chihuahuas, Labrador Retrievers, Anatolian Shepherd Dogs, and so on. In fact, the way I should have written them is: German shepherd dogs, basenjis, Dalmatians, Jack Russell terriers, Chihuahuas, Labrador retrievers, Anatolian shepherd dogs, and so on. Do you see a trend? Well, you should. The only things that are being capitalized are names and locations. German shepherds are named for Germany, but not for Shepherdland. Also, Dalmatians are named for Dalmatia, Chihuahuas for Chihuahua, Labrador retrievers for Labrador, and Anatolian shepherds for Anatolia. Jack Russells, on the other hand, were named for their originator, the Parson John Russell. The same is true of such breeds as the Doberman pinscher (John Dobermann), the Gordon setter (Duke of Gordon), the Landseer (the painter Sir Edwin Landseer), and many others. Let me repeat: the only words that are capitalized are names and locations!

There is come difficult that comes with writing the common names that originated in languages foreign to you. Is the Hamiltonstovare named for a person? What about the cane corso? What about using capitalization rules seen in other languages (such as German, where all nouns are capitalized)? Well, in that case, if you are aware of those rules, you should follow them. German capitalization rules are why the Hovawart is not the hovawart. The best idea in these cases is, honestly, just to look it up.

Images are from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license or are copyright free: one, two.


  1. I enjoyed this post!

    Of course, I knew the proper way to write scientific names (I believe some Dean would fall from the sky and swoop away my BSc if I didn't...) but I really didn't know the proper way to write common names. Hooray for learning!

  2. It was very interesting having a professor go over common names in detail. I think she had gotten a bit too frustrated by it. I'm not super obsessed about it, but I try my best to follow those rules.

    And same here on the scientific names!