06 August 2009

Type crimes: Species names

My major academic research concerns crustacean nervous systems, so I was very interested in a recent article on for the electronic journal JoVE (the title is derived from the acronym for Journal of Visualized Experiments) on the stomatograstic nervous system in crabs. You’ll have to trust me when I say that in my field, that preparation is famous for its elegance and notorious for its difficulty. The picture gives only a hint of how many fine placements are required.

As I was watching the video, I noticed how the article title was typeset.

Cancer Borealis Stomatogastric Nervous System Dissection.”

And I cringed.

Now, that may look fine to you, but as a biologist, there are rules about writing species names. They have two parts – check. They are always set in italics – double check. The first part of the species name, for the genus, is capitalized – check. The second part of the name is entirely lower case – fail!

In our department, we harass students about the correct way of writing species names. Not setting a name in italics is an amateurish mistake, and we hound students relentlessly on it. It’s probably the few typographic guidelines that they ever have to contend with.

If you’re not a biologist, how does this affect you? It probably doesn’t. The point of this example is that a decision about casing introduced an error. Perhaps a minor error, but an error nonetheless.

Capitalizing only the first word, as here, is usually called sentence casing. Capitalizing every word in a sentence is called headline casing. If you want to set something in headline case, check that you’re not violoating any other rules. Ask why you want to use headline case. Is it just for emphasis? Because there are other ways that can be achieved, such as with font size, weight, colour, and so on. None of those would violate the rules for species names.

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