A Goosander or a goosander? by Dr. David Shirt

English is one of the most difficult languages. Too many exceptions to rules, too many anomalies, too many words that are illogical, far too many pronunciations that make no sense whatever. Be thankful you’re not one of those foreigner thingies. It is also is by far and away the richest language, with upwards of 600,000 words, so it’s somewhat surprising that there is no word to describe what so many feel. A love of nature, a love of science, anything and everything to do with the natural world, a sense that is difficult to describe but is felt on every occasion that we see a certain bird, the first daffodil of the year, a, a fossil, autumn leafs, cluster of galaxies, a moth.

Help is at hand. In 1984 a word was introduced ‘biophilia’, by an American, Edward Wilson, who defined the word as ‘the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life’. His reasoning is that we have coexisted with nature since life began, consequently we must have an innate empathy with everything else in the natural world, a longing to be associated with it. This word must eventually be accepted by dictionaries, and he also offers the reverse of the word as being ‘biophobia’. Imagine, such an affliction? If anyone actually suffers with this, they should be punished severely then dispatched to The Priory for severe treatment.


Is it a Goosander or a goosander? A named bird is a common noun, so should not be awarded capitals, Hayling Island is a proper noun, so does have capital letters. It is just so. So is it a misnomer to call it a Goosander or a Heron?

Which do you prefer - goosander or Goosander

‘Birdwatch’ and ‘Birdwatching’ magazines use capitals, the RSPB magazine insists on non-capitals. So which is correct, but more importantly, does it matter? The renowned French grammarian, Dominique Bonhours, whispered these words on his deathbed, as he gazed upon his loved ones; ‘’I am about to - or I am going to - die - either expression is used.’’

I have in the past been indifferent to this ruling, provided articles were consistent. If an article read, ‘Our garden is frequented by Bramblings and 4 or 5 blackbirds’, the blackbirds could probably sue if put in touch with a good compensation lawyer.

The internet must also change things. We may now receive several emails every day. Some of these are well written, others amusing or interesting, but often, especially after being away for a while, we desire to simply know WHAT BIRDS did they see? Therefore, capitals are essential; capitals make the SUBJECT MATTER stand out.

Opinions of colleagues vary 50-50. Articles on this website actually reflect this and have been left according to the preference of the writer. In an attempt to show that my years around the seat of learning in Oxford were not entirely wasted, Dr David Shirt, Associate Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, has given the following opinion, again exclusive to this website. There can be no greater authority.

For those interested, why do we sometimes say we saw - 600 Dunlin, whereas we should say - 600 Dunlins, and we never say we saw 6 Blackbird?


The question of whether to use capitals for the English names of animals and plants is one that is frequently debated, and I refer you to the enclosed discussion document that I wrote on the subject about six years ago. I am a writer and speaker on wildlife myself and the notes were in response to a query by the RSPB, whose statement is appended. The current situation is much as it was in 1999, i.e. capitals are widely used by birdwatchers but less consistently by other naturalists.

Our grammatical expert tells me that such names are indeed common nouns, and our advice (for non-specialist contexts) is that it is better not to capitalize a name unless one of the words is itself a proper noun, e.g. Savi’s warbler. However, there is no technical ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ here: most specialist periodicals have established an obligatory house style, and customary usage in specialized but less formal situation usually follows the style of relevant publications. The most important rule is to be consistent in the use of the chosen style.

With regard to plurals, the ‘singular’ form originated in the hunting and shooting field and is often known as the ‘hunting plural’. In keeping with its origins, this form is usual for animals that have traditionally been the quarry of sportsmen (or ones that flock in a similar way), and it would sound odd to speak of ‘a herd of antelopes’ or ‘a flock of mallards’. The –s plural in these cases does, however, have a specific use: the phrase ‘there are four teals in Asia’ is referring to the number of different kinds of teal.

There seems to be a grey area where both plural forms are acceptable, depending on context. I agree that one would normally speak of ‘six blackbirds’, but I have recently found myself speaking of ‘a flock of 600 fieldfare’: it seems to be a simple matter of euphony appropriate to the numbers involved!

Feel free to quote from the above, though this is more a discussion of preferred options than one of rules.

Dr David B. Shirt

Associate Editor (Science)

Oxford English Dictionary

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So, it does not really matter, but be consistent. The articles on this website have been left according to the writer’s preference. Maybe with books it is better not to use capitals, you do not want words jumping out t you, with reference books, magazines and the internet, I believe it preferable to use capitals.

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