The Language of Science: Understanding Binomial Nomenclature

by | Botany

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Since the beginning of written history, people have tried to categorize things, organizing the web of life into a wide range of classifications to better understand the world. The philosopher Aristotle is a famous example of an individual proposing a classification system for the world. This was the beginning of taxonomy, or the science of naming things.  

What is Taxonomy? 

Ultimately, taxonomy is the science of naming things and organizing the world into neat groups to better understand it. Since the world is not easy to categorize, scientists and philosophers have long struggled with an ideal way of organizing the world.  

Aristotle’s classification of the world was broad, encompassing animals into two types. One with, and one without red blood. These roughly correspond to our current classification of invertebrates and vertebrates.  

In the 17th century, scientists were just beginning to truly learn about nature in an organized and public fashion. Microscopes were relatively new, and decades passed after their invention before they were used to make discoveries. It was time for a taxonomical system that could withstand this expansion of known life. Enter: binomial nomenclature.

Who Proposed Binomial Nomenclature? 

In the 17th century, there was a lot to understand about the world. New organisms were being discovered on land and in the sea at an astounding rate, and it was clear that a new taxonomical system was needed to allow science to continue advancing.  

A Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus published Species Plantarum, where he described a new system of classification known as binomial nomenclature. (1) 

“[Linnaeus was the] first person to formulate and adhere to a uniform system for defining and naming the world’s plants and animals.”

Bi, meaning two, and -nomial, meaning named, translates to two-named nomenclature. In this system, he initially proposed that all flowering plants and ferns use this taxonomy. Each organism would be identified first by a generic name (genus) followed by a specific name (species.)  

Today, this system of classification remains in effect for all biological studies. Carl Linnaeus, known as the Father of Taxonomy, has left his legacy of furthering scientific categorization for three centuries and counting.  

How is Taxonomy Helpful? 

Taxonomy classifies organisms in narrowing degrees of specificity. From the broadest level of domain, down to subspecies or variety, taxonomy is the foundation of our understanding of the world.  

One of the most significant benefits of taxonomy is that it allows scientists to communicate about specific organisms whether they speak the same language or not. Today, plants and animals are assigned a specific nomenclature code to ensure new names, or changes to existing names, are syndicated and known globally.  

While there are always exceptions to its widespread acceptance, Carl Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature was intended to be universal, using Latin as a basis for these names not for its complexity or archaic sound, but for its stability.  

Latin was chosen because the dead language would not have fluctuations in meaning. Over time, languages are shaped and changed by the people that speak it, but a dead language has no speakers. This ensured that the binomial names would not just be specific but could also showcase the form and function of the species.  

For example, by becoming familiar with the way Latin is used in botany, we can discern that Chimaphila maculata is an evergreen plant that is spotted or striped.  

How? Because Cheima (winter) and phileo (to love) combine to create Chimaphila, the binomial genus which means “winter loving” or as we know it, “evergreen. The species name is maculata, which means to be spotted. We would then be certain that this plant is a very particular plant.   

Taxonomy also allows scientists to communicate more clearly than a regional name would allow. A universal language for plants is important when you consider that common names vary by region, season, or morphology. Many common names also overlap with multiple plants.

For example, sunflowers have over 70 varieties that may all be called “sunflower”, but there is only one variety that is a Helianthus annuus. From understanding that, I may have a completely different “sunflower” in mind, with particular traits and the ability to tolerate certain growing conditions.  

Limitations of Use: Is Binomial Nomenclature Best? 

No, binomial nomenclature is not perfect or without its flaws, but it is the most widely accepted system as it is the most universal that we have in this age. It is constantly being refined as scientists are rearranging plants based on new findings, allowing us to further our understanding of the natural world. 

One of the largest downfalls of binomial nomenclature is that it raises the perception of necessary knowledge to begin learning. To put it into different words, using Latin names in today’s age can make people self-conscious about the level of skill required to be interested in a subject.  

While this must be fully addressed from a cultural and societal perspective to change, it is simply not true that you must know the scientific names to be interested in or learn about a subject. Scientific names are tools for describing what you are learning, not barriers to entry.  

It is true that the binomial system has done wonders in allowing scientists to communicate about the same organism around the world. A downside to that is that it has facilitated organisms becoming impersonal, almost removing them from our perspective of the natural world in some cases.  

Science culture has become one of strong distaste of anthropomorphizing non-human organisms, but that is unfortunately a tool and a lens in which we, as humans, connect with these organisms. This strong aversion to saying a plant is “happy” when it is healthy, or the argument that animals don’t have feelings until proven otherwise goes against our human bond with nature, and causes us to devalue these lives on a societal scale. There is a balance to be struck between learning from your relationship to an organism and from a skewed bias.  

Furthermore, this system of classification has largely taken the place of indigenous or regional names.

There are many ways to understand organisms like plants. The name of a plant has the power of story, relationship, and usefulness distilled within it. Today, many indigenous names for plants and animals are lost or protected, which threatens to further distance us from our connection with nature. The loss of these names comes in tandem with the placement of scientific names, which replace it rather than living in harmony with alternate names.

What Are the 5 Rules of Binomial Nomenclature? 

There are a few rules for writing in the language of science. As a beginner, this can be a little confusing, but fortunately, there are guidelines for doing so – and it’s much less confusing than trying to follow the AP style guide for your next essay. While there are specific rules for establishing a new name in Latin, that’s more detailed than most people need to get.  

A short and sweet list of the 5 rules of binomial nomenclature includes: 

  1. Type the name in italics, or emphasize when handwriting. 
  2. The genus is always capitalized. 
  3. The species is never capitalized. 
  4. The genus is always written out fully first, then may be abbreviated to the capitalized first letter. 
  5. Variety, subspecies, and other denotations are never italicized or underlined. 

Formatting in Type and Handwriting 

In general, binomial names should always be written in italics to suggest the Latin roots and denotation as a specific scientific name. 

When handwriting, underline both the genus and species separately. For example, in handwritten formatting, Mononeuria glabra would be correct, as there is a space between the underlined words.  

Abbreviations that are not a part of the binomial name (such as “subsp.” or “ssp.”) are never italicized. This means Alnus incana subsp. rugosa is the correct formatting. This is also true for other abbreviations or symbols. 

Capitalization is also important when writing scientific names. The genus is always capitalized, and species or subspecies is never capitalized. For example, Fragaria vesca is correct capitalization, as is Sambucus racemosa subsp. racemosa. 

The Rules of Abbreviation 

There are many abbreviations in botanical writing as it streamlines writing in a cohesive way for readers and writers alike. First and foremost, once a genus name has been established at least once in the text, the genus can be abbreviated. For example, once you write Fragaria vesca, you can thereafter refer to it as F. vesca in the rest of the text. 

Abbreviations can feel a little complex, but with a little breakdown they’re easy to remember. The rules for zoology are slightly different than the rules for botany. These are the rules for botany: 

Subspecies may be abbreviated to “ssp.” or “subsp.” depending on preference. If you are writing for a journal, there may be a preference denoted in the style guide.  

Typically, you will use spp. if referring to more than one undefined species of a genus. For example, Alnus spp. refers to a wide range of unspecified alder trees.   

If referring to one undefined species – or the singular version of spp. – you can use sp. This is often used for new or unidentified species.  

There are other abbreviations for special cases. For example, a common abbreviation in horticulture is one to denote a hybrid of another plant. Hybrids are denoted by a multiplication sign (×) before the hybrid’s name. For example, Helianthus × multiflorus is a sunflower bred to have multiple rays of flowers with no central florets where the seeds form.  

Unfortunately, hybrid plant names aren’t always informative about which plants were bred to create the variety, but it can be useful to track which variety you like, if you enjoy gardening.  

Variety can also be abbreviated as “var.” before the variety name. A variety denotes a reproducible trait that isn’t significant enough to classify it as a new subspecies. A bred cultivar may be abbreviated as “cv.” 

1., The Father of Taxonomy, 



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About Destynnie K. Berard
I am a lifelong naturalist who believes a good sense of humor is essential to staying happy. ★ After traveling for years, I settled in New England, falling in love with the diverse landscape the Northeast has to offer, and began pursuing conservation in earnest. ★ My career background is in enterprise marketing and communications, which provides me with a unique perspective of ecological relationships.


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