Category Archives: Moans and Whinges

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.


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.


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.)


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.).


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.


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, 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

How to Be a Freelance Illustrator

Barry Crump (detail), by Trevor Dodd,
Drawing Conclusions

I needed someone to illustrate the ukulele book. Nothing fancy or artsy, just simple line drawings of ukuleles, fingering positions, accessories, and the like. I had a small budget and a tight deadline. As compensation, I was prepared to offer “Illustrated by” credit on the cover, and even one of those little “About the Illustrator” blurbs, where the artist could pose in a comical fashion and plug their website. To me it seemed like a great way to break into books and get a commercial portfolio. But I was flummoxed by some of the people I interviewed. Absolutely flummoxed. These were all folks who claimed they wanted to be professional illustrators, yet they made me want to run a mile. In the end I did find a couple of excellent people to work with, but it took weeks.

What was everybody else doing wrong? Consistently, the same things. So of course I started making a list, as a public service. This list is a little different from most of those offering advice to aspiring artists. When professional illustrators are interviewed about how to “break into the business”, they talk about which art school to attend, what sort of style to cultivate, how to stay creative, and so forth. But as a potential client, I. Don’t. Care about that. Here’s a counter-list of very, very simple, practical things an illustrator can do to get work, from a client’s point of view.

  • Get a website. I can’t consider anyone who isn’t online. I’m sorry, that seems harsh, but I physically do not have time to spend an hour going to a coffee shop and shuffling through the portfolio of each of the dozens of illustrators I hear about. I need to see all your work in about 30 seconds, then move on to the next candidate.
  • Sign up for a basic online space, for example at a commercial portfolio site like this one, or pay someone to design it for you. Even posting your portfolio to a blog like TypePad would be fine, and that’s dirt cheap. People who bother to register their own domain name of course get taken far more seriously.
  • Make sure you get listed in some of the online artist directories. How do you find these? Google freelance illustrator [your home town], because that’s what your clients will be doing. Figure out what the top ten results have in common, and do that.
  • Make sure all the text on your site is properly spelled and punctuated. I know, you won’t be hired for your writing skills. But it tells me you care about what I think.
  • Don’t make implausible claims about the thousand things you can do, or list ten different “specialisations”. Less is more. I felt much more confident in people who did only three things, but did them well. Do, however, show me the full range of stuff you’re good at, not endless variations in the same style.
  • What are your rates? I know, every drawing you do is a special snowflake, but show me some sample pieces and say how much they would cost. This is really important to those of us on limited budgets, but nobody (nobody!) does this. It drove me nuts.
  • List all your contact details on your website. Insane, I know, but some people forget to add a mailing address or a cellphone, or use an email address that they never check “because it gets too much spam”, or give out their home address and number(!).
Fingering D7, by yours truly
  • So that means having a working email address, preferably one that ends in your domain name, not gmail or xtra. If you just post it on your website, though, you’ll start getting spam, and potential clients might end up in your spam filter. There are plenty of ways to hide an email address from spammers: use one.
  • Check your email every day, and respond to clients within 24 hours. Your competition does.
  • Use capital letters and punctuation in your emails. I know, you’re an Artist and just too creative to use the shift key, blah blah blah. But clients tend not to hire 12-year-olds, so perhaps you should strive to resemble one as little as possible.
  • In the signature of your email put your landline, your mobile number, and your web address. If you have a fax, excellent. (I like to mark up faxed copy and fax it back.)
  • Don’t put a tiny graphic in your email signature; it means I can’t tell which of your emails have attachments or not. This becomes really important when we’re emailing versions back and forth.
  • If you’re offered a chance to do a sample piece, do it within 24 hours if you possibly can, and supply nicely-packaged original art as well as emailing a low-resolution scan. Need I say first impressions count? Apparently I do.
  • Email sketches and samples at screen resolution: 72 dpi and a few hundred pixels wide. Never, ever email me multi-megabyte unsolicited artwork.
  • Make an effort. If someone wants you to draw (say) a ukulele, go out and find a real ukulele. You may have to borrow one, or actually shell out $30 and buy one. (Or find a photo of one–I hear you can do that without leaving the house these days.) Do a few sketches before the client asks, and you’ll get huge kudos for showing initiative.
  • Reassure me that you can work with other people: that you always meet deadlines, that you’ve had work published before and it all went smoothly, that you have a professional invoicing and receipt setup, that you’re GST-registered (I don’t actually care either way, but this suggests that you’ve worked with corporate clients more than once).
Ukulele capo, by Helen Taylor,
helben [at]
  • What’s your policy on sending preliminary sketches? What file formats do you supply copy in? How many corrections can I make to a completed work before I’m charged extra? What are your terms of payment? Who holds copyright? (Hint: who’s paying who?) Do you have to be cited when your work’s used? If you don’t know the answers to all of these, I’ll be thinking, “Oh no–am I your first-ever client?” To prevent this sinking feeling, summarise the answers for me on your website.
  • The most important thing, and the rationale behind this list: convince me you are not a flake. Everyone knows the stereotype: unreliable, temperamental, disorganised, living in a dream world. This stereotype, I must reluctantly report, is based on fact. For a client, the nightmare would be an illustrator who doesn’t listen to your detailed brief, takes weeks to make changes, comes up with something completely unusable, and then disappears just as the deadline approaches. This is the secret fear your client is nursing, so your job is to assuage it by acting like a professional at all times.
  • Finally, don’t take on a job you can’t do; it’s a waste of everybody’s time. If the client supplies a clear brief and examples of what they want, and you’re unable to produce art to that standard, don’t go invoicing them for the hours you spent trying. The client’s paying for finished art, not for your time. Learn to say no. If you take all these grumpy suggestions on board, and are halfway skilled as an artist, I predict you will get work. Because hardly anyone else is doing the stuff on this list, any illustrator who’s just a bit organised stands out like a beacon in the field. Good luck!

Sucky Money

new_5_dollar_bill.03.jpg In the liner notes to Stop Making Sense, David Byrne got it right: “American money is the ugliest money in the world.” (Byrne also claimed that the best way to keep your money from sticking together was to crumple it into little balls. See what you miss when you buy all your music as MP3s?)

Anyway, someone at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing felt that the five dollar bill unfortunately wasn’t quite ugly enough, so they stuck a big Barney-purple 5 on it (note the carefully-clashing sans-serif typeface—wouldn’t it be great if it turned out to be Arial?). Yes, this seems to be for real. Isn’t that the most jaw-droppingly hideous thing you’ve ever seen?

“We wanted this redesigned bill to scream, ‘I am a five. I am a five,”‘ Larry Felix, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We wanted to eliminate any similarity or confusion on the part of the public between the $5 bill and the $100 bill.”

monopoly-money.jpg Well, Larry, I don’t like to tell a man his job, but have you ever considered not making all the bills the same color and size? That seems to work pretty well for, oh, every other country in the world. Actually, I know what Larry would say—every American says the same thing when you point this out to them. “Monopoly money!” Yes, it’s true. Even a child’s board game has better-designed money than the USA.

The original Monopoly design has an appealing simplicity, with slabby serifs and ball terminals in a classic transitional typeface, rather than that ludicrously bloated font on the greenback. The numbers are big and clear. There’s an anti-counterfeiting pattern, and a rather sweet repeated train and house motif—in the real world, those could be little transparent windows in a polymer bill. Heck, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing should just adopt this design as is—after all, Monopoly was invented in the Depression so ordinary people could live the American dream of being property-owning capitalists. And its inventor seems to have stolen the idea. What could be more appropriate? It’s the USA writ small.

Things I Won’t Miss About the USA

Ten things I could never get used to. Note that unlike most critics of the USA, I actually lived there for years and years. For what it’s worth.

  1. Religion a routine part of daily life to rampant creationism, abstinence education, and belief in the impending End Times to people who are offended if you say “damn.”
  2. Political conservatism to no real Left, almost no unions to poverty the fault of poor people.
  3. Social conservatism to death penalty and early marriage fine, interracial dating still controversial to feminists that nevertheless expected me to pay for everything on a date.
  4. A health care system at the mercy of insurance companies to try not to get sick.
  5. Deep-seated federalism to state’s rights to a culture of decentralization and a suspicion of government to locally-funded public schools to half of America doesn’t know the Earth goes around the Sun once a year.
  6. Cheap gasoline to urban sprawl, lack of public transportation and sidewalks, SUVs, and Texas to a tendency to invade Iraq.
  7. Protestant work ethic to one-hour commutes acceptable, fifteen-minute lunches eaten at your desk, ten days leave a year, and sometimes no sick leave or maternity leave at all.
  8. A food culture degraded by the drive for convenience to flavorless produce bred only for looks and shipping, and processed foods laden with corn syrup to ghastly industrial farming and entrenched protectionist agricultural subsidies to Cool-Whip, Easy Cheese, and Twinkies
  9. Obsession with slavery and the Civil War (because nobody else in the world ever had slaves or a civil war) to omnipresent racial politics to lack of engagement with other racial problems, like genocide and immigration.
  10. American exceptionalism to insularity to educated people arguing that if everyone had a gun in their home we’d all be better off, despite evidence from the rest of the world that this might not be the case.

It’s interesting to note that a New Zealander in the US saying these things is accused (more than once) of “hating America” and told to go home. An expatriate American criticizing New Zealand would likely get rueful shrugs and sighs of agreement. OK, and then people would call him a wanker behind his back, but still.