WORD COURT ARCHIVES

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July 18th, 2007

Capitalizing bird names / a plural vs. singular puzzle / informational meeting

by Barbara Wallraff



If you’ve been reading this column lately, you might imagine it’s intended mainly for people who work in, or eat in, restaurants. Not so. I chose this week’s letters for a change of pace.




Joanne Mooney, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “A biologist sent a document for us to post to our state-agency Web site. He used capital letters to start every word of the names of seagulls, including the word ‘gull.’ I told him that common names for animals should not be capitalized unless there are words in the name that are proper names normally. He argued that all common names for birds are capitalized per scientific standards. The editors in our agency do not agree. What is your opinion?”


Dear Joanne: If your biologist were publishing something in the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, The Auk, his capitalized bird names would be appropriate. The instructions for aspiring authors of Auk articles are clear: “English names of birds should be capitalized.” But professional ornithologists don’t edit your Web site -- you and your co-workers do. You’re right to apply mainstream standards to what appears on it, assuming the site is intended for the public. You’re right, too, about what mainstream standards are as they relate to bird names. Correct examples are “California gull,” “Franklin’s gull,” “herring gull,” “laughing gull.”

Specialists like your biologist often make the mistake of thinking that the standards that they use when speaking or writing for other specialists are somehow better than the ones in common usage. They’re not; they’re just different. And while they make the language look more familiar to the specialists, they can make it look weird to everyone else. Stick to your gulls -- I mean guns.




Laura Plude, of Beaverton, Mich., writes: “We have a dispute at work about the use of plural or singular in the sentence ‘No residual high-grade dysplasia and no infiltrative pattern are evident.’ One person claims it should be singular ‘is’ rather than ‘are.’ Which is correct?”


Dear Laura: As a nonspecialist in whatever the heck specialty that jargon belongs to (medicine, surely?), I have trouble wrapping my mind around the exact words you used. So let’s experiment with grammatically equivalent ordinary words: “No person and no dog were present.” Um, no -- that’s no good. Because the words “person” and “dog” are being negated, they don’t count toward a plural total, as they would if the sentence read “One person and one dog were there.” If the negated words were plural, that would be different: “No people and no dogs were there.” But “dysplasia” and “pattern” are singular, so the singular verb “is” would be correct.




Kevin Corwin, of Penobscot, Maine, writes: “I hear the term ‘informational meeting’ used a lot. Is that correct? Aren’t all meetings about information one way or another?”


Dear Kevin: Well, yes, information is shared at meetings -- let’s hope! But often meetings are called for such purposes as deciding something, planning something, training attendees or expressing opinions. The purpose of an “informational meeting” is simply to inform the people who attend.





Readers: Are there letters and responses I’ve published in the past that you wish you could see again? Please let me know what they are, for use in an upcoming column.




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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