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Schoolboy errors

Common mistakes of the newbie naturalist, and how to avoid them! Test yourself: there are six common mistakes listed here. How many did you already know about?

1. This is a scientific name: Homo sapiens. Loads of people would call it a “Latin name” and many scientific names are derived from Latin. However, because scientific names may be derived from other languages both ancient (Greek, Sanskrit) and modern, then you are showing your ignorance by calling them Latin names.

2. A scientific name has two words, e.g. Pterostichus madidus. The first word is the name of the genus, Pterostichus in this case, and the second word is the specific name, madidus in this case. The generic name is always spelt with an initial capital letter, and the specific name is never spelt with a capital letter. Ok, so the rules were different a long time ago but specific names are never spelt with a capital letter nowadays. Journalists, for some unfathomable reason, will routinely capitalise all the specific names in any article!

3. If you are the sort of person who likes to insert foreign words into your writing, to add a certain je ne sais quoi, then you may be familiar with the convention of italicising foreign-language words. When writing names, only names of genus rank and below are considered to be foreign-language words and italicised: thus Amniota, Diapsida, Archosauromorpha, Archosauria, Dinosauria, Theropoda, Coelurosauria, Tyrannosauroidea, Tyrannosauridae, Tyrannosaurinae: Tyrannosaurus rex. Italicising names other than genus, subgenus, species, subspecies (and other infraspecific taxa like varieties) is probably the single best way to get the experts to snigger at you!

4. The names of taxonomic groups of genus-level rank and above should be given an initial capital letter. So one of the commonest British beetles is Amischa analis, a member of the order Coleoptera, family Staphylinidae and subfamily Aleocharinae. But once you anglicise those taxonomic names, they are no longer proper nouns: Amischa analis is an aleocharine staphylinid, and one of the commonest British coleopterans.

5. If you have seen a single unidentified species of the genus Hypericum (St John’s-worts), you could write it down as Hypericum sp. If you’d seen two or more species, then you’d write Hypericum spp. In other words, the abbreviation of species (singular) is “sp.” and the abbreviation of species (plural) is “spp.”. So, the abbreviation for one or more species is “sp(p).”. Obviously the same applies to subspecies, so you can have “subsp.”, “subspp.” or “subsp(p).”, although it is a varied world we live in and many people use “ssp.”, “sspp.” and “ssp(p).” instead! Simple!

6. A few words that have transferred straight from Latin into English retain their original Latin singular and plural endings, which catch a lot of people out. So, you can have one larva or many larvae, one pupa or many pupae (both feminine nouns), one ovum or many ova (a neuter noun), or (and I can only think of a bird example) one pullus or many pulli (a masculine noun).

Is all this just pointless pedantry, designed by the experts to fortify their positions of authority and repel the advances of unwelcome beginners? Or are these conventions worth understanding and following so that you can communicate clearly and accurately with your fellow naturalists? Maybe a bit of both!


  1. Stuart Warrington says:

    So why have we now got subgenera in parenthese inserted between Genus and species names? When did that become acceptable?
    eg Haliplus (Haliplus) ruficollis

  2. markgtelfer says:

    Stuart, it is stipulated in the ICZN code that if you want to include the name of the subgenus it must be in parentheses like that: Article 6.1 in my copy (4th edition).

  3. Simon Horsnall says:

    Aedeagus, aedeagi or palpus, palpi: entomological masculine nouns.

  4. markgtelfer says:

    Thanks Simon, I should have thought of those! Fungus/ fungi would have also been a better example.

  5. Simon Horsnall says:

    Or imago, imagines if you had wanted to stick with the life stages theme (3rd declension masc.)

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