Common names

Anne Kilmer viceroy at
Thu Jun 3 01:38:47 EDT 1999

Michael Gochfeld wrote:
> Matt Smith has set me up for my real pet peeve----why common names
> should be capitalized (note that he capitalized them). Common names are
> proper nouns in that they denote a specific entity.  

no, no, I'm sure that's wrong. Freddie Alligator is a specific entity. 
His sisters who live in the swamp are alligators. 
Used to be that they capitalized flowers (Pansies, Roses) and birds
(Robins, Sparrows) as well as butterflies (Monarchs, Viceroys.)
As a garden columnist and nature writer I've struggled with this. 
My preference is not to capitalize anything (i have occasionally just
not bothered, like e. e. cummings, but not in print. Just shiftless.)
While, as Michael points out, the use of capitals does distinguish the
critter's name from the adjectival stew that surrounds him, the trend,
in the language we are currently using, is away from those capitals. 
one seldom sees a flower capitalized. It seems old-fashioned. 
While birders may well still capitalize the names of their birds, in
those letters to the Irish Times (I heard the Cuckoo yesterday, although
it is June Third; is this a record?) ordinary writers don't. 
Unless, of course, the thing has a people-type name: "I will name this
rose after you, my darling, for you are like a flower: Frau Karl
AS far as I can see, in terms of style, when you are writing for a
scientific paper, you use (along with the scientific name) the common
name, in capitals. This provides the clarity you're going for. You do
this also in reference to plants and other animals. The Pine Marten is
It provides a formality to your writing. 
If you're writing less formally, you go for consistency. (I saw a pine
marten in my garden last night, eating crumbled bread.)
Newspapers and magazines will have their own style manuals ... I think
you will find that they do not upper-case plants and birds, and that
they haven't thought of arthropods.
Hope this helps ...
Anne Kilmer
> Mike Gochfeld

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