When to Capitalize Animal and Plant Names

By Mark Nichol

Few technical writing errors drive editors to distraction like superfluous capitalization does. This eruption of capitalitis (a pathogen otherwise known as Uppercasis ludicrosii) is most often seen in references to plants and animals.

Words that comprise the names of plant species are generally lowercase: “Lumber from the live oak is rarely used for furniture.” Exceptions occur when one or more of the words is named after a person or a geographical location, as in the name of the California poppy. (The flowering plant bougainvillea is named after French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, but plant names so inspired are still lowercase.)

An exception is also made for references to types of fruits and vegetables, such as Red Delicious apples or Early Girl tomatoes. Then there are names of cultivars, or cultivated varieties, of plants, such as that of a kind of broccoli, Brassica oleracea ‘Calabrese’.

The convention in botany is to enclose the name of the cultivar in single quotation marks. Note also the exception to the rule about placing closing punctuation within quotation marks; this format, also employed in linguistics and philosophy, reflects the intention to clarify the precise terminology in question.

Notice the italicized name mentioned just above, and the jocular one in the first paragraph: Those are examples, respectively authentic and artificial, of binomial nomenclature, the system of Latin-inspired scientific names for life-forms. The first element, the genus name, is capitalized; the second element, the species name, is not (even if it derives from a place name, as in Artemisia californica, the name of a plant found in California). Such terms, as shown here, are generally italicized.

Binomial nomenclature is, of course, also used for animals, including the singularly curious one designated as Homo sapiens. However, as in the case of plant names, animal names are not capitalized (“I spotted a red-tailed hawk,” not “I spotted a Red-Tailed Hawk”), except when an element of the name is a proper noun, as in “Steller’s jay” and “Siberian tiger.”

Animal breeds, unlike types of produce and plant cultivars, are given no special treatment: Your cocker spaniel is special, of course, but its breed name merits no capitalization. However, many names of breeds of dogs and cats are exceptions, such as those of the German shepherd, the Siamese cat, and the Thoroughbred horse. The preponderance of such examples may be the cause of confusion about capitalization of animal names.

The rules are complicated, but it’s a simple enough matter to get a ruling: Check the dictionary.

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20 Responses to “When to Capitalize Animal and Plant Names”

  • ApK

    >>Note also the exception to the rule about placing closing punctuation within quotation marks; this format, also employed in linguistics and philosophy, reflects the intention to clarify the precise terminology in question.<<

    Interesting. Can anyone clarify or point to clarification of this exception?

  • Michael

    ApK,

    Well, I did my basic training as a conservation biologist, albeit specializing in zoology, and attempted a masters on the environmental history of wine, so I’ll have a stab. I hasten to add that a good style manual is a more trustworthy guide than Yours Truly!

    Before I do: Mark, thanks for this reminder. This has always thrown me. My only quibble would be that species names are always—not ‘generally’—italicized in formal writing.

    OK, so, the use of single quotes around the cultivar’s name would suggest that the rule in this case is to observe the BrE style of placing the punctuation outside of the mark.

    Note that an alternative is to use the abbreviation ‘cv.’ (with a full stop/period) and no quotation marks, e.g., Brassica oleracea cv. Calabrese. (I can’t italicize the species name in this box, so just assume it’s so.) Variety and subspecies names can be rendered as Vitis vinifera, var. sylvestris or subsp. sylvestris (depending upon which school of taxonomy you hale from I suppose), in which case sylvestris is not capitalized but is italicized.

    In zoology, the abbreviations are absent, so Homo sapiens sapiens or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, i.e., Genus species subspecies. No quotes, just italics.

    Note that once you’ve spelt the name in full, you can then abbreviate the genus to the first letter—H.sapiens sapiens—or simply use the subspecies name if you’re making a comparison between subspecies. You normally refer to a whole genus like Homo spp., indicating many species, or simply Homo. Again, name italicized, abbreviation not.

    Hope this helps.

  • Kathie Kjar

    Pretty accurate, as are Michaels comments. He is right. The Latin is always italized or underlined. That’s one of the rules of Botanical Nomenclature (International Association for Plant Taxonomy). Zoology has similar rules.

    The second word in the name is called the specific epithet, not the species. The genus and the epithet together make the species name. This is a common mistake. The genus is about the classification within the family. Whereas the epithet is about the individual species, and is generally a descriptor, e.g. Galium boreale or Northern bedstraw, the boreale from borealis meaning northern in Latin. That was in and earlier post “Latin Words and Expressions: All You Need to Know”. There are many more Latin words that are desciptors used e.g. elongata (elongated), verticillata (whorled), villosa (villous or hairy) etc., the list goes on and on. The epithet can also be named after someone, just not the person who named the plant.

    The main difference between plants and animal names is the specific epithet. In botany, the genus and epithet cannot be the same word, like Bison bison. Also in botany the epithet and a subspecies name are always separated by subsp. or other appropriate division that is not italized or underlined, e.g., Linum perenne var. lewisii, blue flax versus Homo sapiens sapiens.

    Thanks for the great article. I sure most people wouldn’t care about the detail I’ve gone into.

    Kathie

  • Michael

    Thanks Kathie! I didn’t know about the epithet.

  • Andrea Georgi

    As a matter of fact, the American Kennel Club does capitalize all words in dog breeds, i.e. Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Irish Terrier and so on. Who would be the authority? I am a dog judge and it always throws me to see the dog and cat names (same applies as the Cat Fanciers’ Association capitalizes) in lower case.

  • Mark Nichol

    Andrea:

    In just about any field of human endeavor — from science, medicine, technology, and law to social activities — practitioners and enthusiasts often demonstrate the internally perceived import of the subject matter by capitalizing key terms.

    However, this post, and general writing and editing guides, support emphasis for only a limited array of terms, and then usually only for the precise term (“U.S. Supreme Court,” but “the court,” whereas a legal document would likely state “the Court”). The system is admittedly arbitrary, but keeping this type of emphasis to a minimum avoids cluttering our written language with capitalization.

    Any publication associated with the American Kennel Club is justified in capitalizing breed names because parties to the AKC agree to do so, but this is not (so to speak) generic practice. It is no more necessary to accord capitalization to dog breeds than it is to do so to distinguish between species; the different names, for most people, are distinction enough.

    The authority is the convention of the writing and editing professions, which have no jurisdiction over what we call in-house publications and acknowledge the right of those publications to follow their own editorial policies but reserve the privilege of observing and championing what is called down style, the minimalization of capitalization.

  • Christopher Martyn

    An excellent and helpful piece but can I make a small complaint about the way you have named the disease that you are trying to cure? ‘Itis’ as a ending implies an inflammatory disorder of the organ identified by the word that precedes it: appendicitis, bronchitis, meningitis, tonsillitis, and arthritis are diagnostic labels for inflammatory conditions of the appendix, bronchi, meninges, tonsils and joints. So capitalitis would mean inflammation of the capital, which doesn’t make much sense.

  • Mark Nichol

    Christopher:

    Thank you for your note, but it’s only half helpful. In the spirit of this site, when you posit a problem, you would be of great assistance if you could attempt to solve it. What would be the appropriate word ending? -osis? A quick online search failed to produce a site that lists and defines disease suffixes. I know I’ve seen one somewhere.

  • Christopher Martyn

    Yes, that’s a fair point and I apologise for being negative. I agree that capitalosis would be better. Or perhaps capitalopathy? Both -osis and -opathy imply dysfunction without specifying the nature of the pathological process.

  • Mark Nichol

    Capitalopathy — I like that! But I think capitalosis better conveys that it’s a specific affliction.

  • Anne Hunt

    You use a lot of double talk, something I’m not looking for. So I’ll give you the name and if you would please email me the correct form. Please remember I have no Italics or Bold or Underscore in the site this material will be placed. I can only either “” or ‘ the names.

    1. The smallest species is the “H. Satomiae.”

    2. …it may carry hoof and mouth disease.

    3. Peter’s mouse lemur

    4. Western Rufous Lemur

    5. The leatherjacket family of fish…

    6. What animal is called “nature’s brother-in-law”?

    7. …a gift of a pygmy hippo named “Billy” to

    8. …owe their ancestry to Billy the pygmy hippo.

    When reading the grammar sites none of them list pure examples for handling situations as lsted above. I would appreciate your input sans all the double talk. Some explanation is always welcome, but my attention won’t handle a discourse.

    Thank you ever so much for your time.

    Anne

  • Ginny

    To Anne – I’ll take a stab at your non-botanical list:

    2. hoof-and-mouth disease
    3. correct
    4. western rufous lemur (“western” is not a proper name)
    5. correct
    6. correct – the question mark goes inside the quotation mark only if the quoted words make up a full question. Mary asked, “How do we do this?”
    7. correct (uncapitalized pygmy is an adjective meaning small in stature, whereas Pygmy is a race of people under 5′ tall.)
    8. correct (Once you’ve introduced the nickname, it doesn’t need quotation marks to be clear.)

    I might add some corrections to your sentence, “When reading the grammar sites none of them list pure examples for handling situations as lsted above.”

    1)Noun-verb agreement
    One common error is that “none of them” is actually singular, because “none” stands for “not one.” Remove the “of them” to think about it. This should sound right: “Not one site lists pure examples…”

    2)Misplaced modifier
    Your subject, none, does not agree with its antecedent. “When reading the grammar sites” refers to you, but the way it’s written, it means the sites are reading themselves! You could simply say “None of the grammar sites I’ve read lists… or “when reading, …I found that…”

  • Bevan

    What about the names of plants/animals that are “foreign” languages – i.e. non-English. I’m currently writing about New Zealand trees, many of which have Maori common names – e.g. “pohutukawa”, “nikau”, “taraire”, “rata”, etc. Should these be capitalised or not?

  • Neil Pinder

    The reason why English names of animals are plants should always be written with capitals is to avoid confusions that arise from their often being descriptive. So a little owl could be a small-looking owl i.e. it might have been a Scops Owl – or was it a Little Owl. Some sociable plovers could conceivably refer to a group of several Lapwings – or were they actually Sociable Plovers?

    I could be referring to common field grasshoppers or Common Field Grasshoppers, a large white butterfly or a Large White butterfly a four-spotted footman or a Four-spotted Footman (moth), a wild strawberry or a Wild Strawberry.

    That’s why good naturalists use capitals and why you are wrong to suggest that we shouldn’t.

  • Alastair Rae

    I agree with Neil Pinder. Common names of species should be treated as common names hence have leading caps. I know editors don’t like caps but natural history writing looks weird if you use lower case for everything.

  • Jay Cossey

    Bravo! Neil Pinder and Alastair Rae are right on the money. It is my personal opinion that the common names of plants and animals deserve at least as much respect as the name of a village, a hamlet or a metropolis. I think the current rules of capitalization are plain and simply wrong, when it comes to common names–especially common names that are widely (albeit somewhat grudgingly) accepted by the scientific committees that have approved them and tied the names to current, but oft-revised, Latin names.
    Rules that are so often broken, might need to be changed. What would be the harm in that?

  • Faith

    My question is for clarification on when a common name and scientific overlap like in the case of Cosmos, Echinacea, or Orlaya where the Latin genus also functions as the common name in many instances. Do these get capped? From what I understand they are treated as a common in that they do not have to be italicized in non-scientific writing if you are not referring to a specific species. Any clarification on this one? Oy! When creative and scientific writing overlaps! Thanks

  • Mark Nichol

    Faith:
    When referring to the species by the genus and the specific epithet (thanks to Kathie in the comment above for the correction about the name of the second element in binomial nomenclature), capitalize the genus and italicize the name: for example, Cosmos bipinnatus, Echinacea purpurea, and Orlaya grandiflora. When using the genus as the common name, lowercase and style in roman: for example, cosmos, echinacea, and orlaya.

  • Mark Nichol

    Neil, Alistair, and Jay:

    As I alluded above in reference to capitalizing references to dog breeds, scientific publications (and any other publications) are welcome to capitalize names of species—and often do so—but it’s an unattractive style, especially in concentration, and context can be provided that makes it clear that the first word in “little owl” and in “sociable plovers” is part of the animal’s name and not simply a descriptive term.

  • Mark Nichol

    Neil, Alistair, and Jay:
    As I alluded above in reference to capitalizing references to dog breeds, scientific publications (and any other publications) are welcome to capitalize names of species—and often do so—but it’s an unattractive style, especially in concentration, and context can be provided that makes it clear that the first word in “little owl” and in “sociable plovers” is part of the species name and not simply a descriptive term.

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