The application of binomial nomenclature is now governed by various internationally agreed codes of rules, of which the two most important are the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) for animals and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN). Although the general principles underlying binomial nomenclature are common to these two codes, there are some differences, both in the terminology they use and in their precise rules.
In modern usage, the first letter of the first part of the name, the genus, is always capitalized in writing, while that of the second part is not, even when derived from a proper noun such as the name of a person or place. Similarly, both parts are italicized when a binomial name occurs in normal text (or underlined in handwriting). Thus the binomial name of the annual phlox (named after botanist Thomas Drummond) is now written as Phlox drummondii.
In scientific works, the "authority" for a binomial name is usually given, at least when it is first mentioned, and the date of publication may be specified.
The name is composed of two word-forming elements: "bi", a Latin prefix for two, and "-nomial", relating to a term or terms. The word "binomium" was used in Medieval Latin to mean a two-term expression in mathematics.
Prior to the adoption of the modern binomial system of naming species, a scientific name consisted of a generic name combined with a specific name that was from one to several words long. Together they formed a system of polynomial nomenclature. These names had two separate functions. First, to designate or label the species, and second, to be a diagnosis or description; however these two goals were eventually found to be incompatible. In a simple genus, containing only two species, it was easy to tell them apart with a one-word genus and a one-word specific name; but as more species were discovered the names necessarily became longer and unwieldy, for instance Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatus pubescentibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti ("Plantain with pubescent ovate-lanceolate leaves, a cylindric spike and a terete scape"), which we know today as Plantago media.