Tag Archives: Grammar

Flirting with Proper Nouns

 

OR, COMMONNESS AND CAPITALIZATION

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?