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 [Only registered users see links. ]
Tobias Baskin wrote a short piece on this news group in the 90's: [Only registered users see links. ]
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.
And in 1994 Plant Molecular Biology Reporter (12(4):300-301) also
endorsed using a small a:
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.
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 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