birding-aus common names

Subject: birding-aus common names
Date: Thu, 29 Jul 1999 16:45:44 +1000
Thanks to all those jumping into the common name debate. All responses so
far seem to be quite adamant that capitalisation is the way to go - both for
'correctness' and because it looks better.

Some arguments that I have encountered against capitalisation [with
counterarguements below]:
 - that the removal of ambiguity re is a red roo a roo that is red or a Red
Roo, breaks down a bit when you have part of the common name that is a
'standard' proper noun (eg Tasmanian Pademelon) or comes at the start of the
sentence (eg Grey Fantails eat insects). It can even add further ambiguity
when immediately preceded by the first word of a sentence (eg Migratory Grey
Fantails eat insects).

In these examples there is just as much ambiguity whether the common name is
capitalised or not. Thus the 'anti' argument seems to be that capitalisation
doesn't help here, so why do it at all?

[not a very persuasive argument? as not capitalising at all leaves in 100%
of ambiguity]

- that it is simply not the way any editorial styleguide (AGPS, Chicago etc)
says it should be done

[it may not be in these style manuals, but it is a widely used and accepted
style in a wide range of publications - not to mention that publishers often
deviate from style manuals for some points while adopting them for the

- that to capitalise decreases scientific credibility

[it is used in a wide variety of authoritative publications and is the
preferred style of many scientists, even if the scientific literature
doesn't generally do it]

- but the biggest objection seems to be that is 'looks untidy'; is hard to

[the feedback I have received so far suggests that this is definitely not
the case for a large percentage of people in the wildlife field - in fact,
just the opposite]

- they don't like or find confusing the use of Red Kangaroo versus kangaroos
as a generic

[again, people in the know are completely comfortable with it]

- that common names are too changeable and hence not worthy of
capitalisation, they are in essence simply an adjective

[they may be more variable than Latin names, but there is generally a choice
of standard lists -at least for vertebrates - and it is simply a matter of
adopting one of them]

- that for some critters, there is no common name that identifies an
individual species beyond a higher taxonomic level, or when it somehow seems
ridiculous to do so eg should it be "Witchetty Grubs are tasty" or
"witchetty grubs are tasty", or, if there is recognised species "Spotted
Witchetty Grubs are tasty"

[fair call - but if there is no specific common name, then there isn't one
and it is fine to talk about " a tasty species of witchetty grub"]

- that it looks really odd to capitalise names of things that people don't
think of as the 'proper' common name eg Rabbit/rabbit, Dog/dog. And in the
same vein, it seems really awkward to always have to say Common Wombat or
European Rabbit or Australian Kestrel when there is no confusion over which
species it actually is, so therefor lets drop the capitalisation as well as
the specific name.

[another fair call - but it looks odd only to those not in the know, to whom
it looks just as odd not to capitalise for everything. And perhaps for the
second point, if there is no confusion about which species it is, then an
editorial decision can be made to drop the specific name but retain the
capital. The argument that because you drop the specific name in such case
so therefor you should loose the caps doesn't make any sense]

- a common name is not a proper name so therefor it should not be

[a common name is a proper name therfore it should be capitalised]

An alternative that has been proposed that avoids all the ambiguity issues -
a good point. But if capitalisation looks bad, won't this look even worse?
And it does not solve any of the other objections raised against caps and it
certainly is not a widely used alternative.

Ultimately, it should come down to want the reader wants. Publications for
people who are real hands-on wildlife people seem to use it more than those
for whom wildlife is a coffee table experience.

If you've made it thru this far - thanks!

Keep the ideas coming.


Sean Pywell
Series Editor - Wildlife Guides
Lonely Planet Publications
PO Box 617, Hawthorn, Victoria 3122, Australia
Office: 192 Burwood Rd, Hawthorn, Victoria 3122
Telephone: +61 3 9819 1877
Fax: +61 3 9819 6459

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