Category Archives: Stuff I Hate!

Flirting with Proper Nouns



Caps and little lettersOne of the things that never ceases to amaze me when I read self-published books are how often basic rules of grammar are flouted. We all make typos, yes, but a serious writer knows language is her most important tool. Spelling, grammar and parts of speech are our basic building materials. If you don’t master those, you’re not ready to publish. (Don’t even get me started on correct use of apostrophes. The world is not ready for a rant of that magnitude.)

Today, however, I want to talk about nouns. And why sometime they’re capitalized and sometimes they’re not.

The simplest definition of a noun is any word that represents a person, place or thing. A more detailed definition, from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, is that “a noun is a word that names something, whether abstract (intangible) or concrete (tangible).” In other words, a noun can name things both perceptible, like a tree, and imperceptible, like goodness.

A common noun names a generic person, place, thing, activity or condition: The mayor of the city visited the ball park. Common nouns are capitalized only when they begin a sentence or appear as part of a title: “Detective Johnson examined the body.” vs. “The detective examined the body.”

Concrete nouns name things that are perceptible to the five senses: apple, rose, window, music. Abstract nouns name things than cannot be directly seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched: grief, anticipation, schizophrenia.

A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place or thing. To rephrase the example above using proper nouns, it could read: Mayor Daly of Chicago visited Wrigley Field. Proper nouns are always capitalized, no matter how they’re used.

Titles of works are also proper nouns and have their own rules of capitalization. Big Sky River, (book), The Importance of Being Earnest (play), Downton Abbey (television show), Zero Dark Thirty (movie). Note that in two- or three-word titles, all words are capitalized. In longer titles, prepositions and articles are all lowercase except when they are the first word: The Old Man and the Sea, Of Human Bondage.

Articles on the web or in print can follow the same rule, or it is acceptable if the first word and proper nouns are capitalized and other words are lowercase.

Common nouns can become proper nouns: Democrats, Republicans, the Big Apple. And sometimes a proper noun may be used informally as if it is a common noun:  “Who died and made you Hitler?” implies that someone is dictating their wants without regard for right or wrong.

A class of common nouns called eponyms are derived from proper nouns that passed into such universal usage that the formal version was dropped. Today we might pack sandwiches, not Sandwiches (from the Earl of Sandwich, who popularized them) before setting off on an odyssey (a long journey, from the adventures of Odysseus in Greek legend) .

Do you have a spelling or grammar pet peeve? Which resource do you check for correct usage?


Attack of the Ants

Springtime…balmy temperatures, the cry of geese flying north (more accurate than the first robin), the veil of new growth over shrubs…and bugs.

Inevitably some species of creepy-crawlies tries to overrun our house every spring. This year it was earlier than usual, no doubt because of the mild winter we’ve experienced in Nebraska. But when I went upstairs to clean up earlier this week there they were: a few ants exploring the eastern wall of our master bedroom and bathroom. Of course, we all know there is no such thing as ‘a few ants’.

I can’t stand bugs. Cannot. Stand. Them.  So I responded as I normally do: scream loudly and hunt for the bug spray. Needless to say, since it’s early, there was no unexpired can of insecticide in the house. Eventually I realized this was a good thing, or I’d have a room that stank for months, plus it’s probably not a good idea to breathe in the fumes night after night. (It’s a little too cold still to keep the windows open.)

We didn’t have any ant traps either, and besides, the tiny terrors were on the wall, up by the ceiling, not on the floor. I resisted the urge to call my husband. Like Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women, I believe that the man should kill the bugs. Not only does my husband not share this belief, he thinks it’s hysterically funny when I come across the occasional six- or eight-legged creature.

Luckily, while at the store getting new ant traps and bug spray, I came across some adhesive picture hangers. As I type, there have been no further ant sightings, and our walls are festively decorated with a series of ant traps. I’m not counting the ones on the floor.

I can deal with snakes, lizards, worms and rodents. Just keep the bugs away.

What creatures give you the willies? Bugs in general or specific kinds like spiders? Snakes or other reptiles? You can tell me. I promise not to laugh.