Capital offences: A grammarian on nouns proper and common

by Ray Prebble / 17 December, 2018

A look at the nuances of nouns.

One day in the 1990s, I found myself, with a group of other people, watching a splendid dark-blue shark cruise around the rowing pond on the Wellington waterfront. One curious woman (I’ll call her Sally) said, “I wonder what type of shark it is,” and a helpful bystander (I’ll call him Ron) said, “It’s a blue shark.” So Sally said, “Yes, but I wonder what type of shark it is,” so Ron said, “It’s a blue shark.” So Sally said…

I kid you not. It was like two robots locked in a logic loop. I had to walk away.

Sally thought she was getting a description but wanted a name and didn’t realise that’s what Ron was giving her. Such names are common nouns. They are common inasmuch as they apply to a group of things rather than to a particular person, thing or idea. That’s why we tend to write them in lower case: sycamore, railway station, blue shark. If, through familiarity and affection, we decided to give this particular shark a name, Archie, say, that would be a proper noun, and proper nouns qualify for a capital letter.

Apart from personal names, what other names are proper nouns and qualify for the special privilege of starting with a capital letter? Therein lies the problem: the idea of privilege. People feel an irresistible urge to use a capital letter for an important word – or, rather, a word that refers to an important thing. This urge is understandable, very common, but completely misguided.

For example, let’s suppose we capitalise occupations based on importance and see where it goes. We decide to use “Prime Minister” and “Vice Chancellor”, but “plumber” and “dishwasher”. Okay. The tricky bit comes when you have to decide how far down the food chain you go before someone ceases to be important. Good luck with that. And you face the same problem with every noun: does it refer to an important thing? Says who?

This issue is common with Māori words: surely iwi should be Iwi, and te ao Māori should be Te Ao Māori? No and no. Common nouns in both languages should be treated the same way, not least because failing to do so leads to all sorts of food-chain dilemmas. The Germans solve the problem by capitalising every noun in sight, while the French tend to go in the other direction (e.g. École nationale supérieure des arts et industries textiles).

There are some oddities. Take geography. I can’t understand why we shouldn’t call the planet we live on “Earth”, rather than “earth”, not least to distinguish it from the stuff in the garden, but “earth” it is in the Concise Oxford and elsewhere. There is (possibly) more justification for using “southern hemisphere” on the basis that it is a description and not a name, although directional place names are a whole problem class of their own: is it south-east Asia or Southeast Asia? A description or a name? New Zealanders write sentences like “In the north-east part of the West Coast of the South Island” without thinking, but at least a rule is being followed: lower case for describing an area, upper case for naming an area.

Here’s one rule of thumb when things get hazy: the use of a or an is a good sign that you have a common noun: an action plan, a director, a government. It’s just one example of a type of thing, not a specific, named individual, so no capital letter. The is much less useful. It has a pointing function, distinguishing something in particular, but that can range from the glass on my desk to the United States. Descriptions involving the can also evolve into proper nouns: the Dunedin railway station (a description) becomes the Dunedin Railway Station (an official name).

Still puzzled? If you’re not, you haven’t really grasped the problem. My advice after 30 years’ grappling with all this? Use as few capitals as possible. 

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.

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