A quick word about species names.

This is a very quick post about something that is annoying to many biologists — the misuse of species names. It is prompted by a news headline I just saw, which is about the 106th time I have seen this problem (“T. Rex”).

The binomial naming system was developed by Linnaeus in the 18th century and is still in use in modern biology. It consists of two names for each species — or, more specifically, a genus and species name. Every species should have only one genus/species name, although it takes work to correct multiple names for the same species (synonyms) and to split different species that are grouped together into a single name (cryptic species). The genus is a broader category and is (usually) comprised of many species. I will not get into the difficulty in defining what species are (though this is an interesting issue), only a few points about the use of terminology.

  • The plural of “species” is “species”. The singular of “species” is also “species”, not “specie”. “Specie” refers to coins.
  • The plural of “genus” is “genera”.
  • Genus and species names are always written in italics.
  • Genus names are capitalized, species designations are not. For example, it should be “Tyrannosaurus rex“, not “Tyrannosaurus Rex“.
  • Once you have defined the species name (or if it is very well known), you can abbreviate the genus. For example, “T. rex“. The same capitalized/lowercase and italics rules apply (it does not become “T. Rex“, though watch for automated spell checkers to un-correct this for you).
  • Some species are further partitioned into subspecies (although this is a more nebulous category than species); subspecies designations follow the same rules as species names (e.g., “Canis lupus familiaris“).
  • Humans are categorized as Homo sapiens, the name given by Linnaeus in 1758. It means “man, the wise”. Homo sapiens is a proper noun and not a common noun, such that one human is not a “Homo sapien”.

2 comments to A quick word about species names.

  • TheBrummell

    If you don’t mind, I’ll be linking here the next time I’m a TA for a course and the students will write a major assignment.

    “Six genuses had only one specie each” is a phrase that will one day make me cry.


  • Thanks for the detailed information behind use of italics and capitalization with the binomial naming system, which I can now pass along to my American fifth-graders.  
    FYI, periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks in American English, so now I am wondering if Canadians prefer the British or American rules with respect to this issue.  Here’s a snippet from a webpage — http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-use-quotation-marks? — of Mignon Fogarty (AKA Grammar Girl):
    Quotation Marks with Commas and Periods
    The most common question people ask about quotation marks is whether periods and commas go inside or outside, and the answer depends on where your audience lives because in American English we always put periods and commas inside quotation marks, but in British English periods and commas can go inside or outside (kind of like the American rules for question marks and exclamation points). I use this memory trick: Inside the US, inside the quotation marks. Here are some examples:
    “Don’t underestimate me,” she said with a disarmingly friendly smile.
    I can never remember how to spell “bureaucracy.”
    Don’t get confused when you see this handled differently in The Economist or on the BBC website; just remember that it’s different in those publications because the British do it differently.
    Compositors―people who layout printed material with type―made the original rule that placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. The quotation marks protected the commas and periods. In the early 1900s, it appears that the Fowler brothers (who wrote a famous British style guide called The King’s English) began lobbying to make the rules more about logic and less about the mechanics of typesetting. They won the British battle, but Americans didn’t adopt the change. That’s why we have different styles.
    But there is one exception.
    – See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-use-quotation-marks#sthash.p0QE2O6s.dpuf


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