[Arabidopsis] Re: Common name capital 'A' or small 'a'?

Terry Delaney terrence.delaney at uvm.edu
Fri Sep 8 09:39:36 EST 2006

Dear chrday,

Thanks for your note and for posting the earlier comments from Tobias
Baskin and the PMBR.  I have felt awkward in our past writings to use
Arabidopsis as the common name for A. thaliana, so was happy to read
some thoughtful commentary on the issue.  I also talked to a seasoned
systemicist in my department who said that Baskin was exactly correct
in his view that arabidopsis should not be capitalized.  So, I will no
longer feel awkward and use arabidopsis as the common name, and
hopefully journal editors will agree to a common treatment of this

Best regards,  -Terry Delaney
The University of Vermont

chrday at gmail.com wrote:
> Is there any official policy with respect to using Arabidopsis (no
> italics) compared to arabidopsis (no italics)? It appears that the
> 'capital A' is favoured but i have seen the 'small a' too.
> The plant physiology guidelines do confirm that the genus can be used
> as a common name.  So arabidopsis can be written in a no italics form,
> however, they are ambiguous about the use of the 'capital A' or 'small
> a' since their only use of arabidopsis is at the start of a sentence.
> "Common names can be used after first mention. Arabidopsis (no italics)
> is an accepted common name for A. thaliana." from
> http://www.plantphysiol.org/misc/ifora.shtml
> Tobias Baskin wrote a short piece on this news group in the 90's:
> http://groups.google.com/group/bionet.genome.arabidopsis/browse_thread/thread/578b40d05035906/081cce0c06eefdc7?lnk=gst&q=%22common+name%22&rnum=1
> [Start quote]
>          There are two different issues, one is italics, the other is
> capitalization. The rule for capitalization is very simple: the genus
> name is always capitalized and the species name is never capitalized.
> No one has any problem with this in writing binomials. But for some
> reason a habit has developed to retain the capital when the genus name
> gets used as a common name for the species. In writing "this
> breathtaking Arabidopsis mutant", the word "Arabidopsis" is being used
> as the common name, like pea or wheat for those species, and not to
> refer to the genus, Arabidopsis, and so should not be capitalized.
> Despite the fact that this habit totally violates a long standing rule
> of taxonomy, it has become so ingrained that many editors and journals
> INSIST on the capital. I don't know why this habit started, (laziness?)
> but the same has happend for drosophila and xenopus, among others, and
> I don't think at this point that anything can be done.
> [End Quote]
> And in 1994 Plant Molecular Biology Reporter (12(4):300-301) also
> endorsed using a small a:
> [Start Quote]
> Anyone exposed to introductory biology knows that Latin binomials are
> italicized, the first letter of the genus capitalized and the species
> lower case: Escherichia coli, Drosophila melanogaster, Arabidopsis
> thaliana (all three italicised). We find increasingly in scientific
> journals, however, the unitalicized terms "Drosophila" or
> "Arabidopsis." It is clear from the context that writers are not
> referring to the genus as a whole, but to their familiar species, D.
> melanogaster or A. thaliana. What is happening?
> The favorite weed of molecular biologists has become so commonplace in
> science writing that the Latin formalism can be discarded. "A.
> thaliana" doesn't roll off the tongue as smoothly as "E. coli," so
> "arabidopsis" has simply been incorporated into ordinary English--at
> least, ordinary scientific English.
> Other than for taxonomy, the rule is that foreign words are italicized
> in English: Weltanschauung, de gustibus, nom de plume (all three
> italicised). There is ample precedent, however, for the incorporation
> of foreign words into English, whereupon italics melt into plain roman:
> alter ego, chic, honcho, pizza, siesta, troika.
> We need not look beyond the world of plants for more examples: Starting
> with A, we have abelia, acacia, agapanthus, ajuga, aloe, alyssum,
> amaranthus, amaryllis, anemone, aster. Each of these flowers are known
> by ordinary English words, each borrowed from the genus, and each
> familiar to every gardener. All English speakers are equally familiar
> with gladiolus, iris, and zinnia. Scientists (and most gardeners) know,
> however, that a reference to genus and species still gets the full
> treatment: as in Gladiolus nanus, Iris danfordiae, and Zinnia elegans
> (all three italicised).
> It is equally appropriate, therefore, to write "petunia" or "Petunia
> hybrida (italicised)"  but note that "petunia" in ordinary English is
> in lower case; it is not "Petunia."
> Welcoming our favorite weed into scientific English, the REPORTER
> henceforth will print its name as "arabidopsis." On the advice of our
> consultant in Greek, we offer no recommendations on its pronunciation.
> [End Quote]
> Lastly, reading the international code of botanical nomenclature (ICBN)
> principles it is clear that they recommend that common names such as
> arabidopsis use a small first letter.
> So what is the current status, small a or big A?  Is use of the capital
> A just laztness, as Tobias suggested, or is this now standard practice?
> Thanks for any pointers.

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