Latin Names 101 for Journalists

Newspapers always get Latin names wrong. Over the years, I’ve submitted lots of correctly-formatted copy to editors and watched it get mangled. No more. Here are the rules (rules! not guidelines!) for using scientific names; share them with a journalist you care about.

Genus and Species

Latin names are in two parts, the genus and the species; sometimes there’s a subspecies or variety tacked on the end. “Species” is both a singular and plural noun, by the way.

The New Zealand dolphin, Cephalorhynchus hectori, has a North Island subspecies, C. hectori maui.

Capitals

The genus always starts with a capital letter; the species never does, even if it’s named after a person’s proper name (like Cephalorhynchus hectori).

This is the first solid evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbours.

Italics

Scientific names are always (always) written in italics. Higher-level groups (which have names like family, class, and order) are never italicised.

Nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) is the only New Zealand member of the Arecaceae or palm family.

When you’re talking about a whole genus of plants or animals, like Brassica, it’s also italicised. (Once a newspaper told me it’s “not AP style” to use italics and stripped them out, but set my byline in italics.)

Abbreviations

The first time the name’s used, genus and species are spelled in full. Subsequently you can abbreviate the genus.

Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis share 99.7 percent of their DNA.

If you don’t know exactly what species is referred to, or you want to talk about more than one, you can use sp. or spp. (plural) after the genus. Note: no italics.

Campylobacter spp. commonly contaminate food, and five species cause gastroenteritis in humans.
On New Year’s Day, Heaphy noted in his journal that he had shot and skinned some kind of kiwi (Apteryx sp.).

Articles

Journalists often wrongly refer to species with a definite article. It’s better to think of a Latin name as a name, like Dave Smith or Sauron.

The Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [WRONG]
Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [RIGHT]

Special Cases

  • The fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, beloved of geneticists, is just referred to as Drosophila. It’s become the vernacular name, so doesn’t need italics.
  • The gut bacterium Escherichia coli is almost always referred to by its abbreviation, E. coli, for obvious reasons. Note: italics.
  • T. rex is the dinosaur, T Rex is the band.
  • Economists sometimes talk about the supposedly “rational human” homo economicus, which is really just a Latin phrase, not a proper biological name, so doesn’t need a capital.

Test

How many things are wrong with this quote?

“[The forestry worker] discovered a large native spider from the stanwellia species.”
(NZ Herald, August 14, 2014)

(Answer: four. “from”, missing italics, genus and species confused, and not capitalised)

Corrected version:

The forestry worker discovered a large native spider belonging to the genus Stanwellia.

or, better,

The forestry worker discovered a large native trapdoor spider (Stanwellia sp.).

Another Test

How many mistakes?

“A 24-cm-long giant amphipod, the alicella gigantean, has been found in the Kermadec Trench.”
(modified from Stuff.co.nz, 23 Oct 2013)

(Answer: four. It should be Alicella gigantea, so missing italics, no capitalisation, needless definite article, and a species name which should look dubious even if your Latin is a bit rusty.)


Does it matter that newspapers get all this wrong? Yes. Geranium and Geranium aren’t interchangeable. The rules are set up so it’s as clear as possible exactly what plant, animal, or bacterial infection you’re referring to. Mess up the Latin name, and you end up talking about something else entirely, and cause confusion or even harm. Journalists pride themselves on getting things right; Latin names are easy to get right.


What the Heck, While I’m Here

CO2: No.
Co2: Nope, that’s two atoms of Cobalt.
CO2: Ugh, seriously no.
CO2: Correct! But almost never seen in a newspaper.

See also: H2O, O2, and so on.

And At No Extra Cost

Phosphorus (n.): the element.
Phosphorous (adj.): Full of phosphorus; compare with sulphurous.

Further Reading

One thought on “Latin Names 101 for Journalists

  1. Thomas Lumley

    Also (as I’m sure you know) cultivars: lots of garden plant names are cultivars but get miswritten as if they were species or subspecies. For example, there’s the yellow pōhutukawa, Metrosideros excelsa ‘Aurea’, where the Latin binomial should be in italics but the cultivar name in single quotes, no italics.

    Modern cultivar names aren’t supposed to be Latin, but older ones often were.

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