Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A WORD ON THE CAPITALIZATION OF BIRD NAMES


It's always bothered me that most media outlets don't capitalize the common names of birds.  I've just never understood why.  It's unnecessarily confusing  - does "I saw a yellow warbler" mean you saw the species Setophaga petechia or that you saw a warbler of the color yellow, like a Prothonotary or Pine Warbler?  

It also strikes me - as a birder - as disrespectful.  Birders are a species-centric bunch.  Field guides are divided into species, each one seeming to be its own separate brick - distinct but accommodating - in the birdlife structure.  Our lists are built by species one-by-one; the Carolina Chickadee only counts once no matter how many individuals you've seen.  To us, the combination of words creating a species' common name is the carrier of meaning, it's the it, it creates - quite literally - a proper noun. (Sometimes even capital letters at the start of the words aren't enough, and we distinguish species in bold or in all-caps.)

To cast that combination of words back among the unwashed lower-case, then, is to rob it of its magic.  To a birder it seems undignified.  To a scientist, though, treating species not as icons but as data (or, more likely, with a much better understanding of the muddy fluidity that is the "species" concept), or to a layperson, who couldn't give a crap either way, the common name is meaningless,  unworthy of extra typeface.

An English professor would explain that the difference is common vs. proper nouns.  The argument is that, basically, the common name of a bird species is not capitalized because there are lots of individuals of that bird.  So, while the words Eastern Bluebird refer to a unique species, they don't refer to a unique bird, and it should be just eastern bluebird.  

I think this is garbage.  Say what you will about common nouns, but there's nothing common about Common Goldeneye: the uncommon combination of those words means the author wasn't referring to some common goldeneye but a Common Goldeneye, an uncommon bird among all birds but one distinct from - and more common than - the uncommon Barrow's Goldeneye.  The "common-ness" of a common noun falls away when it refers to something specific.  

The academic distinction erodes further when talking about brand names.  Under most style guides, Jeep Golden Eagles and Plymouth Road Runners get the royal treatment but golden eagles and greater roadrunners don't.  Why is that?  Like a bird's common name, saying "Plymouth Road Runner" doesn't refer to a single car but a group of alike cars that are somehow distinguishable from others.   You're telling me that some stupid marketer's focus-grouped baloney gets capital letters but living creatures that have literally reshaped their own bodies over thousands of years to better survive harsh and changing environments are "common"?

Look, just capitalize your common species names, OK?  Show a little respect.

12 comments:

John Beetham said...

Capitalization of common names seems to be a birder quirk. In scientific literature, it's standard to use lowercase for comm names, and capitalization for scientific names. See, for example, this article on Great Tits. It's not clear to me that journalists should follow the birding usage rather than the scientific one. An interesting question would be why the birding and scientific usages diverged in the first place.

Rick Wright said...

John's right: birders do this and hardly anyone else.

All the talk about bird names' being "proper" really doesn't make sense; it's just typographic convention to make scanning English prose easier, and like all convention purely arbitrary. I do it on my b-log and whenever I'm publishing in a place whose style sheet demands it, but I'm aware all the time that it's odd to the point of incorrectness.

Would you ever write

I though I saw a free-roaming pack of Domestic Dogs, but then I saw that they were accompanied by two Humans walking across my Kentucky Bluegrass

?

Didn't think so.

NickL said...

Gonna have to completely disagree with you, Rick! I believe that species names should be capitalized because they are proper in the sense that they're distinct (in the way that a car brand is distinct). In your example from above, "Domestic Dog" would not be capitalized because it's the general term (and I know that dog breeds are complicated and probably the exception, but for dogs I would equate breeds with species for other animals), "Humans" would not be capitalized because it's also the general, but Kentucky Bluegrass would be capitalized. I am not advocating for the word "bird" to be capitalized, or "warbler" or "hawk" in the general usage, but when someone writes "Chestnut-sided Warbler" they mean that specific brand of warbler, and capital letters are due.

Anonymous said...

In the fisheries scientific world common names are now officially capitalized.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03632415.2013.767244#preview

Anonymous said...

It's not a "birder quirk". Butterfly watchers do it, too. But we get better names: nothing in the world of birds beats the Great Spangled Fritillary, the Mourning Cloak, the Question Mark, or the Whirlabout.

AbbyO said...

Capitalizing species names is a bad idea. It makes documents harder to read. Each capital letter is like a little hill that your eye has to climb.

It's not routinely done in botany or forestry; why do it in some disciplines and not others?

hedwigix said...

I think there are times when capitalization of species names is appropriate and times when it's not.

It is appropriate when a species name or a few species names are repeated relatively infrequently, or frequently in a paper or article of which that or those species are the focus.

Capitalization can becomes an annoyance or a bunch of "hill[s] that your eye has to climb" when many species are frequently mentioned or listed. A good example of this is Scott Weidensaul's book 'Of a Feather.' This book routinely mentions many species by common name, often many in one sentence or paragraph. In this instance, capitalizing every common name would give the text a cluttered look and would, in my opinion, strain the eye and slow the rate at which the text is read. It also makes the tone inappropriate for the audience: people curling up with a good book read for leisure. Capitalization of common names in an academic paper, even when many are listed or mentioned in a sentence or paragraph, would, obviously, make for a tone that fits the writing's purpose.

It all comes down to style. For some fiction writers, capitalizing a species name would be abhorrent to their style. A good writer, though, will know that writing "a yellow warbler" might better be written "a warbler yellow in color" or "a warbler with yellow plumage." But if "a yellow warbler" is written, we can give both the author and the reader the benefit of the doubt in deciding which is meant.

It's a Gray Area.

hedwigix said...

I think there are times when capitalization of species names is appropriate and times when it's not.

It is appropriate when a species name or a few species names are repeated relatively infrequently, or frequently in a paper or article of which that or those species are the focus.

Capitalization can becomes an annoyance or a bunch of "hill[s] that your eye has to climb" when many species are frequently mentioned or listed. A good example of this is Scott Weidensaul's book 'Of a Feather.' This book routinely mentions many species by common name, often many in one sentence or paragraph. In this instance, capitalizing every common name would give the text a cluttered look and would, in my opinion, strain the eye and slow the rate at which the text is read. It also makes the tone inappropriate for the audience: people curling up with a good book read for leisure. Capitalization of common names in an academic paper, even when many are listed or mentioned in a sentence or paragraph, would, obviously, make for a tone that fits the writing's purpose.

It all comes down to style. For some fiction writers, capitalizing a species name would be abhorrent to their style. A good writer, though, will know that writing "a yellow warbler" might better be written "a warbler yellow in color" or "a warbler with yellow plumage." But if "a yellow warbler" is written, we can give both the author and the reader the benefit of the doubt in deciding which is meant.

It's a Gray Area.

NickL said...

Hi folks-

I understand your points about texts looking cluttered or having to "climb the hill" of a capital letter, but I think the few instances of clutter are overwhelmed in importance by the confusion avoided by capitalization of species names. In my view, there's simply great benefit to being able to express whether you're talking about a yellow warbler or a Yellow Warbler - especially when the reader may not be familiar with species names and would have a hard time picking up the name in context.

-Nick

DARIAN ZAM said...

I have to say I agree with your sentiments about why bird names should OFTEN be capitalized (but not ALWAYS, depending).
It seems criminal to denote proper bird names to common nouns fullstop, but even more so when stupid brands or football teams get caps. Makes no logical sense at all. It's just wrong. I abhor the whole concept of common nouns in that capitalist ventures are, well, capitalized – as if important – but nature is not because it's not important. Screw that. Who makes those decisions anyway?! Is there a corporate boardroom round table on use of the noun?

Generally most respected bird resources capitalize names like, for instance, 'Gang-gang' because well – it's an individual name. There aren't any other kinds of Gang-gang cockatoos whereas there are lots of species of cockatoo.

Who says we always have to follow convention because something is traditionally "done a certain way", especially when it's clearly idiotic? And in this case I'd like to help along that change so I shall be capitalizing in my books.

Kerry Wilcox said...

Just want to say that many scientific papers on birds actually do capitalize the common names, especially when discussing birds in the Americas. So--using lower case is not necessarily a scientific convention as one of the commentators suggested.

Brandy Lehmann said...

Being a scientist (birdist or any other type of freaks) required professional academic writing to summarize all the data you collected about birds (or dogs, cats, etc)

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