capitalizing vernacular [English] names

Frederick W. Schueler bckcdb at ISTAR.CA
Thu Mar 3 19:01:38 CST 2005

"Edwards Jr, G.B." wrote:
>  Maybe you're suggesting we should emulate the German
> language and capitalize all nouns?

* no just proper nouns.

> As for your example, the names of any person
> are proper nouns, it has nothing to do with a historical perspective.
> In fact, it is a (more or less) unique identifier for an individual,
> not a species.

* so, if a species is an individual????

Karl Magnacca wrote:

> Nothing except birds have their names
> capitalized regularly, probably because the AOU and Audubon Society
> have enough of a dominant influence that they can make it that way

* it's not necessarily an offense for ornithologists to be right about
something (is it?), and capitalizing the names of species isn't that
rare - the names of Amphibians and reptiles are capitalized in North
America, it's been the policy to capitalize all names in the Canadian
Field-Naturalist for about 30 years now, Chapman, in the recent message
in this thread, capitalizes names and cites the Australian Environment
Department as an authority, some botanists capitalize English species
names, and I see that the (mostly invented) English names of
mushroom-fruiting Fungi are capitalized in the Peterson field guide...

> You may be right in a strict grammatical sense; but since 1) as this
> whole thread has been showing, there is no direct correlation between
> many vernacular names and taxa, and 2) vernacular names (at least in
> English) have never been capitalized, I don't think starting a big
> movement for it makes much sense.

* my argument was only meant to apply to cases where (1) didn't hold,
and (2) has only been true in certain widespread subsets of English.

> Honestly, is this really something
> that makes any difference whatsoever except to people who care about
> arguments whether species are individuals?

* maybe the question is whether the conclusions of systematics and
philosophy are important enough to export into the vernacular? My belief
is that it is important for conservation that species and other taxa be
recognized as historic individuals, and that capitalization can
contribute to the sense that they're distinctive and important (this
isn't to mention the instrumental advantage of distinguishing the "Green
Frog" [Rana clamitans] from the "green frog" [specifying a coloration]).

"Nee, Michael" wrote:

>  Maybe we should have had Cats, Dogs and Pigs on the Farm, and Cows in
> the Barn and then we would capitalize our Words like the Krauts.

* the anti-German remarks that come up when this matter is raised are
often astonishing (it's not so long ago that all common and proper nouns
were capitalized by some English authors, you know), and the resistance
is certainly greatest in the case of domestic species ("cow" is an age &
gender class, not a species name). But I'm not advocating changing the
rules of English, just following the rules employed for human
individuals and institutions when they apply to taxa.

"Frederick W. Schueler" wrote:

> I know this view is wildly unpopular in some circles.

* just to be clear, I don't endorse the profligate use, or the
invention, of English names. In some of the groups I work with I don't
know the invented English names, and won't make any effort to learn
them. But real vernacular names are an important part of any language's
cultural heritage, there's a natural human desire to draw up
standardized lists of these, and that leads to the desire to match them
to Linnean names (since the match is usually pretty good), and if they
are matched in that way, it seems appropriate to follow the grammatical
rules of the vernacular language.

fred (German by surname, but only 25% by ancestry).
           Bishops Mills Natural History Centre
Frederick W. Schueler, Aleta Karstad, Jennifer Helene Schueler
      RR#2 Bishops Mills, Ontario, Canada K0G 1T0
   on the Smiths Falls Limestone Plain 44* 52'N 75* 42'W
     (613)258-3107 <bckcdb at>
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