More Answers to Questions About Capitalization

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Here are several questions that have come up recently from readers about capitalization, followed by my responses.

1. Are seasons proper nouns?

Although people often capitalize the names of seasons — especially in academic contexts, such as in “Fall Semester” and the like, or in reference to quarterly publications, such as in “the Summer 2013 issue” — they are common nouns and should be lowercase, except as part of proper names (for example, “the Winter Olympics”) or in poetic personification (such as in “when Spring sheds her tears in April”).

2. I am about to write an article about self-publishing, and I am rephrasing my paragraphs to avoid starting the sentence “eBooks are . . . .” However, I am curious to know if a sentence can be started with a lowercase e. (I suppose the same thing could also be said of iPads, too.) Should I write E-books, eBooks, or Ebooks?

The Chicago Manual of Style, the premiere style resource for US publishers, recognizes the ubiquity of such terms and recommends making an exception to the rule of always beginning a sentence with an uppercase letter: “iPads are . . . .”

The Associated Press Stylebook, its equivalent for periodical publications, however, recommends changing a lowercase initial letter to uppercase when it begins a sentence: “IPads are . . . .”

I recast such a sentence if possible but agree with Chicago; the fact that an accommodation needs to be made is unfortunate, but AP’s style is ugly. In this case, though, the question is not a concern, because ebook (or e-book, if you prefer, but not the outdated E-book) is not a proper name; it is equivalent to email (or e-mail). At the beginning of a sentence, treat it like any other first word: “Ebooks are . . . .”

3. Botanical/horticultural names are italicized (because they are Latin) and consist of at least two parts: the genus (capitalized) followed by the species (not capitalized) — for example, Aloe vera. In writing about the genus more widely, then Aloe is often used alone as the family name and is italicized.

But what does one do when the Latin botanical genus name is turned into a plural by adding an s? Then it is English, not Latin. So, presumably, the italics get dropped. But what happens to the capitalization? Is the English variant still capitalized?

Good question. If one writes, for example, “The garden maintains one of the largest and finest collections of aloes outside of Africa,” rather than “The garden maintains one of the largest and finest collections of Aloe outside of Africa,” the English plural form, as indicated in the first variation, should be lowercase.

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12 thoughts on “More Answers to Questions About Capitalization”

  1. RE: More Answers to Questions About Capitalization

    3) Botanical/horticultural names are italicized (because they are Latin) and consist of at least two parts: the species name (capitalized) followed by a descriptor (not capitalized) — for example, Aloe vera. In writing about the species more widely, then Aloe is often used alone as the family name and is italicized.

    QUESTION: At what point do we assume that Latin or foreign words simply become English words and use them as such.
    Why would botonical names still be considered Latin? Is it because we sometimes have an alternate English equivalant, so the original remains Latin?
    Is Latin an exception in our practice?
    How do general rules interact with conventions in various fields such a biology or law?

  2. Botanical names like these are NOT Latin because they are English, American Indian, or Spanish – and you have royally confused the issue:
    Douglas fir, Burbank grape, sequoia, coastal redwood, southern pine, saguaro cactus, kudzu, etc.

    Just remember that most people are not experts in botany, and to most of us, a “botanical name” is the name of a plant, no matter what kind of a name that it is, what source it has, or what language it is in.

    The same kind of thing goes for zoological names and names from microbiology….
    We just have other things to think about, including gallium-arsenide field-effect transistors, hypersonic aerodynamics, or whatever else our fields might be.


  3. ” . . . consist of at least two parts: the species name (capitalized) followed by a descriptor (not capitalized) — for example, Aloe vera.”

    In fact it’s the genus name that has the initial capital (Aloe), the species name is lower case (vera). And both chould be italiciised or underlined. (On this forum I don’t know how to do either.)

    If I were writing about dogs, wolves and foxes, I might pluralize the genus Canis as canids (anglicising) or speak of the Canidae (leave it Latin). In either case I would italicise as a matter of course.

    I don’t think it’s a big deal though as long as one is going to be consistent.


  4. “Fall Semester” and “Spring Semester” are not capitalized because they are used in academic contexts, but rather because the terms in quotation marks are proper nouns.

    It is possible for all of these to have Fall Semesters, Spring Semesters, Summer Semesters, Winter Semesters, etc.:
    churches, charitable organizations, corporations, international organizations, financial organizations, etc. There is nothing holy about associating semesters with schools.

    For a hypothetical example, “We have received a grant of $200,000 for the Winter Semester from the XYZ Foundation to feed hungry orphans in Hungary.” This does not have anything to do with schools.
    The XYZ Foundation has merely divided its fiscal year into the Winter Semester and the Fall Semester, and it distributes money accordingly.

  5. Mr. Ramsay, you are absolutely right:
    The first part of the biological name is that of the genus – or even the family, as in “Gorilla gorilla gorilla” (no kidding) or “Homo sapiens sapiens”.

    Underling a word is merely a substitute for italicizing it when italic letters are unavailable. Likewise for putting the word or words in quotation marks, such as in “Gorilla gorilla gorilla” or in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. For the titiles of books, magazines, films, songs, etc., another acceptable substitute is wrting the name in all capitals, such as in GONE WITH THE WIND, NEWSWEEK, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, and NOBODY DOES IT BETTER (which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song).

    I am sometimes amazed when people do not know the difference between the Real Thing and a mere substitute. Sorry about that.


  6. Ahh, Bruce, you beat me to it 🙂
    Regarding the thrice-named Gorilla, the first one (capitalized) is the genus, the second one is the species, and the third one is the subspecies. Apparently, however, when it comes to using the genus as an adjective, it is not capitalized. For example, with bacteria, you would write staphylococcal infection (i.e. an infection by some species of the genus Staphylococcus), no capital necessary. And to my annoyance, similar issue with eponymic words. So you would say a person has Parkinson disease, but their symptoms are parkinsonian; and although the Gram stain was named after Dr. Gram, they don’t capitalize gram-negative or gram positive bacteria. I personally don’t like that. But there you have it.

  7. If one has a Latin word that needs to be written as a plural adding an ‘s’ is not the way to do it. Any Latin word that can have a plural already has one decided, in many cases, over two thousand years ago. Do people not learn Latin any more? Shame.
    I cringe every time I see the none word visas, visa is the plural of vizum, visas is nonsense.

  8. The decision on capitalizing seasons is interesting to me. I realize that most people will not be confused by lowercase versions, but because “spring” and “fall” double as regular nouns and verbs, sometimes it seems clearer to capitalize these seasons.

    For example, I think it makes a difference when you write “We’re going to finish that in the Fall” versus “We’re going to finish that in the fall”, or “That will be done by Spring” versus “That will be done by spring.”

    Similar to not always using the serial comma, choosing not to capitalize these two seasons allows for the possibility of confusion. So why even allow it?

  9. * I stop arguments about capitalization of seasons before they start just by saying they’re time periods like morning, afternoon and evening, not proper nouns like Monday and January.
    * Many thanks to those commenting on proper ways to handle botanical names. Useful.
    * Rhian, I feel as you do about pluralizing Latin words. I think many are shifting away from it in some cases. The AP, if I’m not mistaken, allows “data” in all uses, sending “datum” to the retirement home. By the way, the most often incorrectly singularized word I see is “bicep.” It’s always “biceps,” no matter how many arms you’re talking about.

  10. @Bill, Rhian, etc. I guess this whole thing is off-topic for this post, but yes, the “s” construction for forming plurals of Latin words is just dumbed down. Sclerae, retinae, conjunctivae, cannulae etc. Other things that bother me are the use of “media” when referring to just ONE medium, or “phenomena” when referring to one phenomenon. AFA “bicep,” I am reminded of Rocky Horror Picture Show, when Frankie (Tim Curry) is drooling over Rocky’s bicep and tricep…but you know, he was so over-the-top, who cared LOL.

  11. Thanks for your comments about the errors in the third question. The details about binomial nomenclature have been revised.

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