Naming names

Before I pop my clogs, I’d like to write a book on the scientific names by which all natural organisms are known — plant and animal and everything in between.

Seriously, it’d be blissful: I’d throw in names like Eschscholzia (six consonants in a row!), Upupa epops (funny-sounding!), or Arcticalymene viciousi (a trilobite named after a Sex Pistol!).

On that last one, by the way, there are many dozens of famous/infamous people/groups that are immortalized in the scientific names of animals or plants: for example, Hugh Hefner (a rabbit), Indira Gandhi (bird), Radiohead (ant), Beyoncé (fly), David Bowie (spider, of course), Mussolini and Hitler (berry and beetle respectively) and Henry Rollins (jellyfish). Frank Zappa’s name is remembered in a rodent, snail, spider, bacterium, jellyfish and fish. The full list of critter-slebs is here.

Now that I have you in my clutches, we will progress to the nitty-gritty: how should we present scientific names?

Please carry on for goodness’ sake

All organisms fit into a naming system that has been refined over the years, thanks in large part to the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, aka Linnaeus. It was his passion for pigeon-holing that led to a formalized system in which every organism owns a unique two-part name.

Domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Human (Homo sapiens). Hoopoe (Upupa epops).

These names draw primarily on Greek or Latin or both, and, while some honour a person or place, others may describe the thing itself. For instance, the seven-spot ladybird is Coccinella septempunctata.

The great advantage of a binomial is that, like an old-school version of the barcode, it bestows uniqueness, which allows scientists to bypass the inconsistency sown by common names. To give you an example, the species known in Britain as the German cockroach is apparently known in Germany as the Russian cockroach, and in Russia as the Polish cockroach. No one wants to own the grubby little sod. So by using its Linnaean name, Blatella germanica, we will avert most international incidents (with apologies to Germans).

Above its binomial, every animal species fits into a hierarchy that branches like a tree and can be remembered by the mnemonic ‘Please Carry On For Goodness’ Sake’, or Phylum>Class>Order>Family>Genus>Species. (There are additional divisions and subdivisions, such as suborders; but PCOFGS are the big six.) Under this system, the domestic dog is classed as follows:

Phylum: Chordata [species with a dorsal nerve cord and other defining features]
Class: Mammalia [all mammals]
Order: Carnivora [carnivores]
Family: Canidae [dog-like carnivores]
Genus: Canis
Species: familiaris

It’s a process of refinement. At the order level, Carnivora contains dogs, bears, raccoons, mustelids, cats, seals and more. But jump down one level to Canidae and we’re dealing only with dogs, wolves, foxes and their ilk. Jump again, to Canis, and we have phased out all of the foxes and some of the dogs. We could even drop below the domestic dog and add a subspecies: the dingo is Canis familiaris dingo.

You’ll see from the above that italics are used only for the binomial (genus and species) and, if present, the subspecies. All higher taxa — Canidae, Carnivora, etc. — are set in Roman type.

Note, too, that the genus name is always capped but the species name never is, even if it derives from a proper name. See, for example, germanica and viciousi above.

Also, for the sake of economy, we can abbreviate genus and/or species names after their first mention:

  • Canis familiaris is found worldwide, but C. f. dingo is restricted to Australia.

Proper noun vs generic form

Any formal taxon name can be extracted into a generic noun or adjective. So, members of Canidae are canids (n.), and a domestic dog has typical canid (adj.) dentition. Tyrannosaurus rex was a tyrannosaur. A llama is a camelid (family Camelidae). Note how the extracted words do not have an initial capital.

What you want to avoid is mixing this system up. Do not, for instance, talk about Carnivores. They’re carnivores (also known as carnivorans), in the order Carnivora.

In short: abbreviations and acronyms

I picked this topic after stumbling across an arresting piece of branding copy (see below), and it struck me how little I know this corner of style. So let us journey together into a letter-strewn wilderness.

This much I do know:

  • An abbreviation is a bunch of capitals (GOP, NAACP, USA).
  • An acronym is a word you can pronounce formed from a bunch of capitals (radar, laser, scuba, NATO, WYSIWYG, FOMO). Indeed, acronym comes from the Greek words for ‘short name’.

A few style points deserve mention; if I’ve missed any, please shout.

1) How and when should you give the long form of an abbreviation or acronym?

For something that is well known in short form, you probably don’t need to spell it out. If you write that ‘East Germany joined NATO in 1990’, most readers will be familiar with that organization. But if you do choose to add the gloss, it should follow in brackets.

  • NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was founded in 1949.
  • The UN (United Nations) has brokered another ceasefire in Yemen.

If your ‘thing’ is best known in long form, but you want to refer to it several times, then give an abbreviation (after the long form) at first mention in your text.

  • Dunedin businessman James Mills founded the Union Steam Ship Company (USSCo) in 1875. As it steadily extended its tentacles through the Pacific trade routes, the USSCo came to be known as the ‘Southern Octopus’.

2) What about the definite article?

As per my NATO/UN examples above, acronyms representing bodies/institutions generally don’t need the definite article, whereas abbreviations do.

  • The GOP; the UN; the NAACP; the WHO.

3) Uppercase or lowercase?

Some acronyms have entered the language to the point where we generally present them in lowercase, or at most with an initial capital. Some institutions deliberately style themselves so.
• Acas [Britain’s conciliation service]; radar; scuba.

There are some oddities, too, such as Anzac Day, which commemorates the sacrifices made by ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops.

Note, too, that some institutions style their conjunctions in lowercase — MoMA, DoJ. Others retain caps where you might not expect them, often out of recognition of their etymology: ABBA, for instance, or IKEA. (You know about the Swedish supergroup. As for IKEA, it was founded by Ingvar Kamprad, who grew up at Elmtaryd, near the village of Agunnaryd.)

And note, on that point, the various ways of glossing abbreviations and acronyms:

  • radar (radio detection and ranging); laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
  • SaaS (software as a service).

On this last point, you can cobble together any abbreviation you like if it suits your purpose, but take care with initial capitals, as these are often unwarranted: software as a service is, after all, a generic term. Similarly:

  • RFP stands for request for proposal, not Request for Proposal.
  • My car’s AC performs air conditioning, not Air Conditioning.

Finally, I had promised that arresting piece of branding copy. See what you make of this:

Founded in 1914 as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA is now known simply as “AIGA, the professional association for design.” When referring to us, “AIGA” will do the trick—not “the American Institute of Graphic Arts,” not “the AIGA,” and not AIGA pronounced as a word (“Ay-guh” or “ā-gə”). You only need four little letters to spell one big design community. Say it with us now: A-I-G-A.

You, me and everybody

If — as I’m doing now — you tend to address your readers as ‘you’, and yourself as ‘I’, the trick is to remain consistent, and not switch arbitrarily to another pronoun, nor bring in so many characters that the reader becomes confused.

That’s not to say we (look, there’s another!) can’t bring in a whole cast of pronouns when it suits us. Here, first, is my recap on who’s who and what they do. Most of it’s pretty obvious, but I reckon it can’t hurt.

I, me: ‘I identify as the narrator, the voice behind the opinions expressed here.’ When you identify as ‘I’, you lay claim to the originality of your ideas, but you also bear responsibility for them. (There’s nowhere to hide.) ‘You’ and ‘I’ is fine for run-of-the-mill prose; more academic writing tends to shy away from ‘I’ in favour of depersonalising the discourse, although some authors will refer to themselves coyly as ‘the author’. [Referring to yourself in the third person, by the way, is called illeism, from the Latin ille, ‘that person’. Julius Caesar often used this device when giving an account of his deeds, in the hope of fostering the illusion of impartiality.]

You: ‘You are my reader, my intended audience.’ This very direct form of address has the advantage of engaging the reader and making them feel as though you’re speaking to them personally, but you need to take care not to sound as though you’re accusing them of some misdeed.

We: ‘We is either the author and reader, but more usually is a broader collective “we” representing people in general.’ The great advantage of ‘we’ is that it’s inclusive: admitting your readers into a kinship can make them feel supported and comforted. It avoids the accusatory vibe, while still enabling you to slip in some hard truths. (‘We all could use some practice at this.’)

They: ‘They is a person or persons other than the writer and the reader,’ unless  you’re being some weird kind of illeist (see above). Adding a third-party dynamic not only can be useful in practical terms, but also allows you to characterize, subtly or otherwise, different subsets of your readership. ‘They don’t love you as I do,’ and so on.

One: For use only by comedians and stodgy Poms.

Okay, back to that non-gendered pronoun. In its more traditional usage, in place of a messy ‘she/he’, it invites even messier switches from singular to plural: ‘When someone wears a ballgown by Balenciaga, they enter a world of feminine mystique.’ I’ll sometimes rewrite to avoid this construction. When ‘they’ serves as a pronoun for individuals who identify as neither ‘he/him’ nor ‘she/her’, it adds no grammatical problems.

There’s nothing to stop you using all the pronouns in a piece of writing, so long as you don’t confuse them. The more you add, the more care is required in ascribing actions or points of view to the different players.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when couples argue publicly, like in the supermarket or the pub? Are they totally shameless? Surely we own the right to buy our groceries or enjoy a drink in peace.

On a final note on pronouns, take care not to confuse subject (e.g., ‘I’) and object (‘me’). ‘She loves you more than I’ does not mean the same as ‘She loves you more than me’. Similarly, the title of this post, which quotes Elton John – ‘You, me and everybody got a part-time love’ – is a classic example of songwriters abusing grammar and getting away with it; still, at the end of the day, Bernie Taupin is a millionaire and I’m not.

How very dare you?

Is ‘very’ useless? Not entirely. But often, yes.

When I was a child, and our family went for walks on the Welsh coast, we’d occasionally come across dead things — a fox, a sheep, a rabbit — and I would sometimes ask my parents if such-and-such was indeed dead. My father generally tramped on ahead, so my mother, on checking said corpse, would usually reply, ‘Oh yes. Very dead.’ This bemused me because I knew that death, like pregnancy, was the ultimate binary option — either you are, or you ain’t — and I was still reasonably blind to her mordant wit.

I use this anecdote flimsily to concede that ‘very’ has its uses. As an intensifier, it adds a more factor; and yet there’s only so much more it can impart before it is as useless as an overprescribed antibiotic. If I’m skimming a CV, I don’t want to read that someone is ‘very experienced’: I should like their track record to be the judge of that. Either they are experienced, as Jimi might have posited, or they’re not. And if someone says they’re feeling ‘very tired’, how’s that on a scale of mildly pooped to done in? Are they exhausted, bone-weary, drained, shattered? When you think of the rich possibilities English offers, such paucity of vocab seems a crime.

While we’re at it, ‘very unique’ or ‘so unique’ are nonsensical expressions. Like death and pregnancy, it’s a binary thing: you’re either a one-off or you’re not.

‘Very’ is not alone. ‘Actually’, ‘really’, ‘basically’, ‘absolutely’ are others that have crept onto the page from our spaghetti-like spoken English. (If you’ve ever transcribed an oral account, you will know what I mean; you may also find the word ‘just’ sprinkled everywhere like sugar on a teenager’s porridge. Get rid of it.)

Then there are tautological phrases, such as ‘return (back)’, ‘combine (together)’, ‘(basic) necessities’, ‘(advance) warning’, and those unhappily married couples ‘cease and desist’, ‘aid and abet’, ‘first and foremost’, etc. The list of words that pointlessly pack our prose is long. Very long.

Crunching the numbers

Should you spell out numbers, or present them as Arabics (numerals)? Could you cheekily mix the systems without anyone noticing?

The problem with number style is its flexibility. For example, there’s nothing wrong with any of the three examples below. Each is internally consistent in its treatment of categories — i.e., age, linear measure and mathematical units. And that, basically, is the key: whatever you do, you absolutely must be consistent.

At the age of eight I stood 4 feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By nine, I had grown 3 inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run 2 miles.

At the age of 8 I stood four feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By 9, I had grown three inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run two miles.

At the age of eight I stood four feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By nine, I had grown three inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run two miles.

The publishers I work with tend to focus on a few core rules, which can be treated with latitude so long as consistency is applied. These rules are good for most uses besides books. Here are some of the basics and their variations.


Single/double digits, large round numbers

In non-fiction, it’s common to spell out numerals from zero to nine, then switch to Arabics for double digits upwards. Arabics are, quite obviously, suited to scientific or technical text. In fiction or more anecdotal non-fiction, such as a life story or memoir, you might prefer to spell out numbers (at least up to ninety-nine), because it fosters warmth and fluency. Usually, too, it’s appropriate to spell out large round numbers.

1) The hut still lay twelve miles away, and rain began to fall. We pressed on.
2) And so I learnt at forty-nine that my knees would not last forever.
3) Our laboratory test subset fell within the sample range of 2.4–5.0 mg.
4) Naked mole-rats typically weigh 30–35 g.
5) There must have been a thousand people at the party.
6) On our mole-rat field trip, undergraduates outnumbered fellows three to one.

Some notes on the above:
In 2 (and I’ve covered this before, I know), avoid writing ‘from 30–35 g’. Use either ‘30–35 g’ or ‘from 30 to 35 g’. The same goes for ‘between . . . and’.
In 3, the second figure includes the decimal place because ‘2.4–5’ would have been ambiguous.
In 6, you could equally have ‘. . . outnumbered fellows 3:1’.

Can you mix single and double digits? The Chicago Manual of Style says no. Rather:

  • On the research trip our party ranged in age from 9 to 16.

If you choose to override this with the zero-to-nine rule — ‘from nine to 16’ — make sure you’re consistent throughout your text.


Direct speech

Numbers in direct speech are commonly spelt out, although there are acceptable exceptions (for, e.g., years, fractions, and other complicated situations).

  • ‘I’ve been admiring your new layering technique for at least fourteen minutes,’ she murmured.
  • ‘We’ve used these Kyoto thinning scissors since 1977,’ I said proudly.
  • ‘Crikey, this mole-rat weighs 43.2 grams,’ remarked Jenkinson.
  • ‘My dog weighs sixty kilos, but he’s a big softie.’


Numbers at the start of sentences

Avoid beginning a sentence with Arabic numerals. Rearrange the sentence to avoid spelling out huge or clunky numbers — although spelling out a massive number can be effective in making a point.

  • Thirty-nine years ago, I could run up this staircase in under one minute.
  • Two thousand and thirty mole-rats live in the area. [This is clunky.]
  • The area is home to 2030 mole-rats. [This is better.]
  • Two hundred and fifty thousand citizens voted for this idiot.


Time . . .

As with other numbering issues, there’s flexibility in how you present times of the day, depending on context, tone and style, and whether you’re of a military persuasion.

  • We usually broke for tea around four o’clock, then took a stroll on the cliffs.
  • Tea will be served punctually at 4 p.m. Dinner is at 7 p.m. Do not be late.
  • Tea is at 1600 hours, final briefing at 1630.
  • At 7.10 p.m. I texted ‘Where are you?’ There was no reply. I sent a second text at 7.12, and a third at 7.21. Finally, at 10.03 p.m. came his terse reply: ‘With Jill.’

Note that in US English, punctual times use a colon in place of a full stop.


. . . and date

You see all sorts of date styles on homemade handbills and posters outside the village hall, but dates can be boiled down to two systems: British English and US English.

British English

  • The ceremony will take place on 5 September.
  • It will take place on 5 September 2020.
  • It will take place on Saturday, 5 September 2020.

American English

  • The election is scheduled for November 3.
  • It will take place on November 3, 2020.
  • It will take place on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

As ever, there is the option of a more lyrical style. With special occasions that are known by the date on which they occur, capitals are appropriate.

  • We always celebrate the Fourth of July.
  • My birthday, on the third of July, is generally forgotten.
  • At least I’m invited to their Cinco de Mayo fiesta.
  • We’ll be shutting our dogs in as usual on the fifth of November.

Ideally, avoid mish-mashes like ‘the village fete will be on the 4th November’ — but, to be honest, no one’s likely to object.



Leading on smoothly from that topic, we normally spell out ordinals. For instance:

  • Embarrassingly, my parents finished seventh in the egg-and-spoon race.
  • Her twenty-first was a lavish event, with elephants and pink champagne.
  • ‘Blues, twentieth-century blues / They’re getting me down . . .’


A topic I’m dodging for now is the presentation of page number ranges. Too big! Another time.