Shy albatrosses or Shy Albatrosses?

Shy Albatross. Photo: Ed Dunens, via Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago I switched from the convention to which I had grown accustomed at the RSPB of not capitalising birds’ common names to the alternative. So whereas Falco subbuteo used to be the hobby it then became the Hobby and whereas I still wrote of gulls, I started writing about Herring Gulls rather than herring gulls.  I was slightly disappointed that nobody seemed to notice and nobody commented upon this momentous change.

It would be nice if everyone did the same thing – but they don’t! Birdwatch talks of Hen Harriers but Nature’s Voice (Yuk! Still yuk!) writes of hen harriers (although not enough!).  British Birds is Hen Harriers and the Guardian is hen harriers.

This is a question that can occupy many column inches and many an end-of-evening birding conversation but there are things to be said for and against either convention.

But I spotted a good example of one of the consequences of non-capitalisation a while ago. The Guardian (or guardian?) had written about the species of albatross called the Shy Albatross, but had called it the shy albatross, when stating that it lived on only three Tasmanian (or tasmanian?) islands in the Bass Sea (or bass sea). Whereupon a reader thought that he (for it was a ‘he’) had found a terrible error and that the Guardian did not realise that albatrosses nest in places other than those three islands.  The letter was published and the only explanation is that the reader took ‘shy’ to be a description of how un-bold albatrosses are and the Letters’ Editor didn’t realise that the original article was correct.  This would probably have been avoided if the species name had been capitalised as Shy Albatross.

But there are arguments on both sides and the discussions can reach the fever pitch of Lilliputian egg-cracking debates.




31 Replies to “Shy albatrosses or Shy Albatrosses?”

  1. This is a real bugbear of mine. What are the arguments for and against?

    Species are proper nouns and their names should be capitalised as such.

  2. Don’t change your mind and revert back to a lack of a capital. On Howard Vaughan’s advice I spent hours capitalising all the bird names in my book hopefully soon to be out! Makes each bird feel more special somehow and of course they are.

  3. Thank you, Mark, you’ve made me think about something I’ve never considered before. I’m guilty of using robin instead of Robin, and I think it may be to do with using a keyboard! When writing the word with a pen, it’s easy enough to use a capital, but on the keyboard, it means holding ‘shift’ as well as the letter key, so maybe it’s down to simple laziness?!

  4. There is a huge difference between a little gull and a Little Gull. The former might be a description, the latter is a name. I always capitalise my bird names because they are, well, names.

  5. The purpose of language is communication. Anything that confuses the reader, or gets in the way of clarity, should be avoided.

  6. How many humans are there on this planet? How many Humans are there on this planet?

    Which is correct?

  7. Interesting you address this now as only recently I wondered if I sensed a pleasing shift back to using capitals – but perhaps that’s from reading your blog. As with the first two comments, correctly there’s little argument in my view – gets tricky when writing in a general sense about badgers and rabbits though, or a mouse in the house – usually a Wood Mouse rather than House Mouse.

  8. I’ve always used capitals and much prefer it that way not only as a means to avoid confusion such as Mark mentions here but also because I find it far easier to pick out bird names when I’m scanning material looking for a reference or information about a specific species. I can’t think of any drawback to capitalising bird names and cannot understand why doing so is not universal.

  9. Thanks Mark for highlighting this. I was made aware from an early age that it was the mute swan convention(!) which was correct but in recent times I have become aware of the change in convention and I am now almost completely converted. I have found myself producing Hen harrier on the keyboard which show that I still have a way to go but strangely I haven’t penned hen Harrier yet.

  10. Use the common name uncapitalised and the Latin in brackets after eg hen harrier (Circus cyaneus, underlined) and thereafter just C. cyaneus, underlined. There are various conventions and I don’t think it matters that much as long as you remain consistent.

    1. Aargh! Now you’ve really got me going. They are not Latin names! They are scientific names. Many of them derive from Greek, many from English and I’m sure many more from many more languages. Whilst they are mostly “latinised”, often ungrammatically, they are not Latin or latin names. As for the treatment of these names I would always italicise (or should it be Italicise) them!
      And before you say it – yes I should get out more.

      1. Thanks Tim. Languages, the way they interact and evolve, makes them appear to behave like virtual ecosystems. Etymologists and word dissectors like you, are always fascinating — even to ignoramuses like me.
        Regards your own advice, it needs some finessing.
        You should indeed get out more. But for extra confidence try taking a dictionary with you and then, for example, chatting people up in the pub with it.
        This ploy never worked for me but it might with a someone as erudite as yourself.

      2. saying it is a latin name is common usage and yes the scientific names (then) should be either italicised or underlined or some other form of highlight. Two things are basically important: 1) consistency; 2) is it understandable. Writing for scientific journals you will find that there are a number of conventions and each journal has it’s own peculiarities. There are many. many conventions and tastes, but actually no laws.

  11. I like the British Birds approach: Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus (binomial italicised).

    1. I agree Richard.

      Mark, what about running a survey of your readers to see what the consensus is?

  12. Systemic herbicides once used to control Agropyron repens are ineffective now that taxonomists have changed its name to Elymus repens. Fungicides once effective against Erisyphe graminis have no effect now that taxonomists have changed its name to Blumeria graminis. Couchgrass, powdery mildew and taxonomists are still with us.

  13. Confused, if “human” is okay, why isn’t “robin” okay? Both of them are separate species, or am I missing something?

    1. I’ll have a crack.
      Both robin and human are OK in a general or casual sense. But if you are semi-serious or are writing about Asian birds and want to talk about a specific robin you would need the capital (especially if a name includes an adjective). It can get very confusing without the higher case.
      The standardisation of English Common Bird names has gone a long way into making these names logical even if we don’t stop using names like Dunnock, diver and skua locally. So your robin becomes European Robin and surely locally we should at least call it a Robin in any literature.
      Human is maybe not the best example. There could be homocentric bias and as far as i know there is no official common name for our species (Modern Man?). We are Homo sapiens but technically Neanderthals were also human. If you read a decent newspaper article about recent hominid discoveries the word human can get pretty confusing. There was one a couple of months back and i had to read below the line to get any clarity.

  14. I have always used capitals when referring to vernacular species names. I have always felt that to use lower case was dumbing down somewhat, and it is prevalent in the membership magazines of big NGOs like rspb and some Wildlife Trusts (eg our own bcn 3-counties trust) but, having just checked, Essex WT use capitals for vernacular species – hurrah to EssexWT. I was forever having written stuff corrected to the dumber version when based there………………

    I agree that it removes confusion, and it is easier to find species in text when capitalised. I was, I’m sure, taught to write species like that when a child (but by whom, I cannot recall), and it is the case in much published literature, but not in ‘membership mags’.

    How would we all feel if we became mark avery, louise bacon, etc. etc. rather than the capitalised Givenname Familyname version which we were all brought up with and which is convention in our own society?

  15. It is becoming harder and harder to resist recounting the case of helpful Caroline and her Uncle Jack’s horse.

  16. When I studied Ornithology under Professor Graham Martin, papers would lose marks if species names weren’t capitalised. Also, use of the definite article, i.e. The Hobby (is there just the one?), was a strict no-no.

  17. I consistently use capitalised names for species and lower case for groupings. I don’t tend to use a capital for “human” because we don’t merit it.

  18. I’ve come late to this but thank you Mark – I think this is important. I work for a wildlife organisation and as long as I do we will use capitals! The species are important, and it’s impossible to pick the names out when you quickly scan text if they aren’t capitalised. We use lower case for groupings – willows, gulls etc. It may look old-fashioned, but I don’t care. Fashions change.

    Natural England don’t use capitals.

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