Capitalization of names of species

Svrtnsse

Staff
Article Team
Ahoy all,

I've come up with a couple of names for plants I've made up for my world. Should the names of the plants be capitalized or not? For example - would it be oak or Oak? (I'm aware that's an actual tree and not something I've made up).
 
I guess if you are talk about oak in general, then is 'oak', unless is an specific one, some sort of The Oak, even being just an oak as any other, something on That Oak is special/different.

Another example, I had the fantasy race Anelen and Vumma, albeit the name of the race being capitalized, I would write 'anelen' and 'vuuma' when referred in talks, general description.

At least is how I work with it, hope had being of some help.
 

Filk

Troubadour
On referencing The Copyeditor's Handbook I am told that common plant names are a big uncertainty and one should consult a dictionary. However, I think that lowercase would be the better case e.g. sedge, grass, willow, elm, arrowroot, etc. The exception would be a plant named after a person or other proper noun like (these are fictional) Rome grass or Micheal's willow.


Edit: For binomial nomenclature the genus is capitalized and the species is not. They are also italicized e.g Cornus candensis or Tussilago farfara.
 

SeverinR

Vala
Interesting, looked up a plant, St John's wort. Some sites capitalized every word(St John's Wort), some just the title and personal name (St.John's wort).
I thought it was set.
I thought the last was what was proper. (St.[capitalize title] John's[capitalize name] wort[type of plant])
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Asura Levi's advice appeals to me. I'm a historian and my students often ask about capitalization of something like bishop or duke. The rule is simple, though often violated: if it's a generic duke, then it's lower case; if it's a particular person and that's his title, then it's Duke Otto. The capital is because it's part of his name.
 

Taytortots

Minstrel
I agree with Skip and Asura completely.
I would say you should only capitalize if you're talking about a specific form.
 

pmmg

Istar
Know this one is old, but I have a bad habit of capitalizing a lot of words I probably should not. St. John's wort would have vexed me.
 
I think with made up words it gets a touch weirder. For some reason, if I type silver maple, I have no problem, but if I type Eternal Oak I just feel the need for caps! Like, look at my world-specific tree! Huh. I have no idea why this is. A marijuana or poppy plant doesn't make me want caps, but the drugs Honêsh and Donu-Honêsh that I made up, I totally want to cap. It's a weird psychological condition or something, heh heh.

A different situation involves magic, but it makes more sense. Now, in my book I use caps whenever speaking of Fire or any other magical, elemental energy to distinguish it from common fire without having to repeat "elemental fire" over and over and over. Of course, this doesn't work in the audiobook so much, heh heh.
 
I think, for a fantasy milieu, the difference must lie in how the people of the land see themselves standing in relation to the plant. Or, see it standing in relation to them.

Here's an example. I can imagine two tree varieties, oaks and Eternal Oaks. There might actually be "grey oaks," "brown oaks," "red oaks"—and then, Eternal Oaks. The Eternal Oaks are so named for a special reason. The reason could be whatever the author chooses as long as it reveals something about the people of the land who use the name.

There could be a historical reason—the particular variety of oak survived the many wars that occurred over the last few centuries, even surviving magical attacks, whereas all other trees would be obliterated. Also, its bark is so tough, most people would cut anything else down for wood first, maybe wouldn't even try cutting down an Eternal Oak.

There could be magical reasons, or religious reasons. An Eternal Oak stores memories of the history that occurs around it; some people, e.g. shamans, can access those memories. Or else a god of the land has conferred status upon the Eternal Oak. Harming one can result is severe punishment. Why? Perhaps the god had a lover that was cursed and turned into the first Eternal Oak and all later Eternal Oaks are the children of this lover.

This sort of thing.

Edit: Also, of course, the historical or geographical importance could be highlighted when adding a person's or place name. Lord Marmuld's oak, Grey Mountain oak. I do think these would need to have some visual cues as well, i.e. be a particular variety easily discerned by most people who come into contact with them—excepting foreigners and beings of other races, perhaps.
 
Last edited:
In fantasy, it could denote something special about the plant, perhaps. If mandrake isn't simply mandrake but has a healing property, it might emphasize to the reader that it has a special property by typing Mandrake. I think, in some part, when I started cap'n Honêsh was to get the readers' attention, to make sure the drug's name was noted rather than just skipped over as "another" word they never heard of, but in particular in the case of Donu-Honêsh, there is a mystic characteristic and even threat level.
 
I thought the last was what was proper. (St.[capitalize title] John's[capitalize name] wort[type of plant])

The last is proper. St. John is a proper noun. Wort is a common noun. Proper nouns are always capitalized. Common nouns are never capitalized unless they're the first word in a sentence.

For those who need a refresher, a common noun is a general word for a person, place, or thing: for example, store, street, man, tree. A proper noun is the personal name of a specific person or place: Andy's General Store, Bunyan Street, John.

Made up plants should follow the same rules. They aren't capitalized unless their name is something like St. John's wort or Queen Anne's lace or black eyed Susan: named for a specific person or mythical/religious/historical figure. Even then, only the proper noun part of the name should be capitalized.
 
Made up plants should follow the same rules. They aren't capitalized unless their name is something like St. John's wort or Queen Anne's lace or black eyed Susan: named for a specific person or mythical/religious/historical figure. Even then, only the proper noun part of the name should be capitalized.

Or if they're named for a specific place. Real world examples include California poppy, Dutch elm, Oregon grape. The place part of the name is capitalized, but not the general part.

Also, of course, the historical or geographical importance could be highlighted when adding a person's or place name. Lord Marmuld's oak, Grey Mountain oak.

Lord Marmuld's oak would definitely be capitalized. Whether Grey Mountain oak should be or not depends on the source of its name. Is the oak named after a specific mountain, named Grey Mountain, or is it simply a mountain dwelling oak tree with grey bark or greyish leaves? In the first case, Grey Mountain should be capitalized. In the second case, it should be grey mountain oak, no caps.

I'm not aware of any grey mountain oak, capitalized or not, in reality, but there is such a plant as mountain oak.
 
Top