hydrurga's picture

Common names

A quick question. I've just had a tree identified as Viburnum lantana (Wayfaring-tree). In looking through the web I see that many sources call the species a "Wayfaring Tree" without the hyphen.

I can see the idea that, for similarly-named types of species, a comma works well for information classification purposes e.g. (if they existed) the Green Wayfaring-tree and the Lesser-spotted Wayfaring-tree. However it just looks plain wrong to see a simple species using a hyphen when it is in fact just a Wayfaring Tree.

I feel like I've stumbled onto some sort of war between the hyphenists and non-hyphenists, and at some point I guess the usage and style may have changed. I know that common names aren't as important as Latin species names, but it would still be nice to have some form of uniformity so that we can all talk to each other in English the same way we can talk to each other in Latin.

So, in a nut shell (nut-shell), can anyone explain why some hyphenate Wayfaring-tree and others don't?

Pete
www.leptonyx.com/nature/

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Thistle's picture

Plain Words

I'm sure Sir Ernest Gowers (The Complete Plain Words (1954)) would have something to say about it. Unfortunately I no longer have a copy to check.

Ian

ophrys's picture

Hyphen

The simple fact is that hyphens no longer matter, in most situations. There is nothing at all to be gained by adding a hyphen between wayfaring and tree, so leave it out. You would only need the hyphen there to avoid ambiguity, but I can't see that any such confusion could occur.

I'm a stickler for proper punctuation, but also aware that increasingly there is no such thing...language is constantly evolving and punctuation seems particularly prone to that change. Also, poor teaching of English has produced a generation who don't even know how to use a comma (and txt-speak only encourages that), so what chance does the hyphen have, what chance the semicolon?

Give it another 20 years and the hyphen will be a distant memory in English. RIP.

Honestly, just don't worry about it! ;)

Ian
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hydrurga's picture

Re: Hyphen

Thanks Ian. I have to say that for normal English I use hyphens a lot, often using them to split up a sentence when others might use a semi-colon. They're also important in compound words where, if left out, people might understand the two words as separate entities.

I love the constant evolution of our language and am glad that we have no-one such as the Academie française or the Real Academia Española to "control" it. I don't think grammar is dying however. Text speak is like a different level of usage of the English language. We've always communicated on different levels. One language for close friends and family, one for school or work, one when communicating with other English speakers who speak a different dialect etc. Some people find it difficult to switch from their home patois to "standard" English, using reasonable grammar, but most have no problem (and I've seen no change over the decades).

Anyway, this seems to me to be a different case, the use of English common names in "Biological English". There appears to almost be a move (or have been a move) towards trying to have binomial common names, or at least a maximum of 2 words in each common name by the addition of hyphens. I'm just interested in why this move took place and what the status is at the moment.

I once read that in France the early biologists were aware that there were numerous different common names for plants throughout the country's regions and areas, thus leading to much confusion, even with the use of Latin binomials. So, they started using standard names, often new ones based on the Latin names, to try to minimise the confusion. I'm not in favour of the regimentation of common names, but it would be nice if we could take a leaf out of their book and at least resolve whether we should be saying "Wayfaring Tree" or "Wayfaring-tree", or "Eurasian Magpie", "European Magpie", or "Common Magpie".

All it would take is, for example, the chaps who are running "The Plant List" to attach recommended common names to each species, where these are available and agreed on by the parties who take part in that venture. That might just nudge us in the direction of some form of standardisation of common names.

Don't worry, this doesn't keep me up at night, I just find it very interesting, my interest having being particularly piqued by our good old Wayfaring-tree!

Pete
www.leptonyx.com/nature/

ophrys's picture

Hyphens

'often using them to split up a sentence when others might use a semi-colon'

Isn't that an en dash or an em dash (depending on length of your dash)?

;)

I do agree with what you say about language not dying, but evolving. It just seems to be changing quickly at the moment and my experience in education suggests that people's understanding of how to punctuate is very poor indeed (and not just among the children).

As for the Wayfaring tree, I can't comment. I suspect that there is no common plan for naming organisms in English. Just look at the odd names of some of the flies named recently, like Ptiolina obscura - the Black-fringe Moss-snipefly. Is that enough hyphens for you?!

It will be interesting to hear what someone on the inside says about the naming of organisms.

Ian
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hydrurga's picture

Re: Hyphens

I'm a Luddite - to me em-dashes and en-dashes are just fancy hyphens and I never use them. ;-)

Thistle's picture

the Black-fringe Moss-snipefly

Here, of course, hyphens are used to remove ambiguity: it is not he black fringe-moss snipefly.

Now, the use of capitals ... !

Ian

ophrys's picture

Fringe-moss

Absolutely! I'm happy with the hyphens, but not the name. Can't imagine anyone exclaiming "Wow! A Black-fringe Moss-snipefly!". What's wrong with Ptiolina!!!

Apologies...time to get back to the original question re Wayfaring-tree.

Ian
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Ray Turner's picture

Recommended English Names

F Gill & M Write (for the IOC) Birds of The World, Recommended English Names Helm, 2006 talks extensively about how the names used came to be selected and the rules used governing hyphens and capitalisation in the introduction. Of course this system only applies to birds (and there are competing systems just to make life interesting) but it is a fascinating read, if you like this sort of thing.

The section on spelling/hyphens/caps is over approximately four pages, two columns per page, (pp5-9) so I’ll summarise:

Capitalization [Now there is a difference for a start]
An important rule... ...official bird names begin with capital letters... ...it distinguishes a taxonomic species from a general description... [e.g. there are several sparrows with white throats but only one species “White-throated Sparrow.]
Compound Names
The most difficult problem to resolve... The committee adopted the following principles:
A. Single Words
Compound names are spelled as a single word if the second word is
bird (e.g. Bluebird, Tropicbird,...) ... or where the second word is a body part (e.g. Hookbill,...) ...call... ...behaviour... The only exception is to use a hyphen if otherwise the name would be hard to pronounce or would look odd.
Another category... ...where the second word is a kind of bird (e.g. Nighthawk,...) The critical point here is that the spelling chosen should not suggest that a taxon is not a member of a bird family named if not one. A Meadowlark is not a Lark...
A corollary of this rule is that if the second word is a type of bird and the taxon is in that bird family, the name would be spelled with two words, either with or without a hyphen... ...(e.g. Bush Lark, Eagle-Owl).
B. Two Words
The most difficult problem is with compound words that are not to be spelled as single words. ...
The choice, then, in most cases whether to hyphenate the two words or not, and this became the single most contentious point in the entire project...
[Interesting and our little debate echoes this perhaps.]
It [The Committee.] adopted the following rules...
1 Two words should be used to spell all names not falling within the rules for single-word names.
2 As a general rule a hyphon should not be used, and both words should begin with a capital letter (e.g. Black Tyrant, ...
3 Where both words are the names of birds or bird families a hyphen should be inserted to signify that the taxon belongs to the family of the second word... ...(e.g. Eagle-Owl, ...
4 If a name covered by #3 is of a taxon that is not a member... ...lowercase... ...(e.g. Flycatcher-shrike).
5 If application of any of the above... ... produce a name that is contrary to long-established and widespread usage, the rule may be modified or not applied.
[I like this rule, talk about a copout.]

Phew, not sure that helps but it is a useful and a guide of sorts.

Ray

Ray

hydrurga's picture

Re: Recommended English names

Many thanks for posting this Ray. That last clause is indeed a copout! However at least they have recognised the problem and thought about the issues. In general the rules appear to make sense - I like the capitalisation guideline in particular.

So, if "tree" is considered the equivalent of "bird", does that also give us the choice of "Wayfaringtree"? ;-)

Pete
www.leptonyx.com/nature/

Thistle's picture

Many thanks!

Interesting ... including the cop-out (or should that be Cop-out or cop out or ...?

Ian