to italicize or not to italicize...

Jim McKenney
Mon, 15 Sep 2008 09:39:10 PDT
Hi, Jennifer


The two responses we've have so far go along way to answering your
questions; I'll just add a bit more here because the recommendations in the
earlier responses are those formulated for use in technical or more formal
publications. I edit the local rock garden chapter’s bulletin, and I wrestle
with questions of this sort all the time. Our membership includes several
professional taxonomists who are concerned that anything they publish in our
bulletin should appear seemly in the event that one of their professional
colleagues should see it. At the other end of the spectrum, our membership
includes many gardeners who probably throw away plant labels as soon as they
get home from the source, and who don’t know the names of most of what they
grow. I’m known to be a bit of a martinet when it comes to proper labels.
And I’m perceived as speaking only “gardener’s Latin”. At a recent meeting I
used a vernacular name, and several heads turned at once; and one of them
actually said “I’ve never heard you use a vernacular name before!”.  


Keep in mind that this is not a matter of right and wrong - it's a matter of
style. Just as there is no universally accepted authority for the grammar of
American English, so there is no universally accepted authority for these


And just as the majority of people spend more time and money to be stylish
in their dress, hair and politics (and how ‘bout them Tina Fey glasses!)
than they do to acquire refined grammatical sensibilities, the majority of
editors don't want to seem to be a Doofus (take that, spell check!) and bend
to prevailing practice in these matters. 


Languages change, and our language is changing a lot right now. 


Here's the way I would treat the part of your inquiry which is not directly
addressed in the responses so far. You wrote


"He refers to Bearded Iris and Oncocyclus Iris.  Are these considered
scientific names or common names?  I did not italicize hybrid tulips,
hyacinths, and crocus - should I have?  Meanwhile, I did italicize Lilium,
Muscari, and Tigridia.  Right or wrong?"


I would not capitalize or italicize either word in "Bearded Iris" or
"Oncocyclus Iris". To my mind they are pseudoscientific common names.
However, if those terms were in reference to another publication cited in
the paper at hand where they were capitalized, then follow the format used
in the other publication. 


The words "tulips" and "hyacinths" are not Latin: they are the plural forms
of words now commonly accepted as English. The word crocus poses a different
challenge: there is a perfectly good English word "crocus" which looks just
like the genus name of the plant in question, Crocus (italicized). Current
practice in many circles is to regard all genus names as potential English
names, with the difference that in their English avatar they do not have a
capitalized initial letter. But watch out here: I would say that our job as
editors is to understand what the writer means and to convey that meaning.
Does the writer mean "the genus Crocus" or does the writer mean "crocus" in
the vernacular sense? Any editorial changes to the writer's usage should
reflect the writer's intentions, not blind adherence to some preconceived


If you're doing the writing yourself and are uncomfortable with the
inclusion of what seems to be the same word used to convey two separate
meanings, you can emphasize the difference by using the plural of the
English form: crocuses won't be confused with Crocus (italicized and with a
capital initial letter). 


If you agree with that and understand it, then that should answer your
question about "Lilium, Muscari, and Tigridia". In other words, depending on
what meaning is to be conveyed, those words can be printed in lower case
letters without italics (and made plural just to avoid any ambiguity) or can
be printed in italics with a capitalized initial letter (when they are
shorthand for the full expression "the genus Xus"). 






Jim McKenney

Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone

My Virtual Maryland Garden



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