Nouns: Part Two—Capitalization

Nouns present few pitfalls, largely because they are only slightly inflected, showing changes of form in only the plural and the possessive. The only other potential pitfall, especially for people from other cultures who are learning English as a second (or third or nth) language, is capitalization. Let’s start there and then move on to plurals and possessives.

Capitalization. Nouns, as we have seen, can be placed into three major categories: persons, places, and things. Within these categories are a few subcategories, of which the most important for writers is the distinction between common nouns and proper nouns. Proper nouns are the names of particular persons, places, or things, while common nouns are the names of, well, common or non-particular persons, places, or things. In the sentence I used as an example in the previous post (That man drives a cab in Washington, D.C.), Washington, D.C. is a proper noun and man and cab are common nouns.

By convention in English, a common noun is not capitalized unless it is the first word in a sentence, while a proper noun is always capitalized; for example, we capitalize John, Mariah, Desmond, Los Angeles, China, Harry Potter, Larry, Moe, Curly, and Mars. We also capitalize Monday, January, Main Street, Volkswagen, and Mario’s Restaurant, making them proper nouns.

Obviously, the proper noun/common noun distinction matters only in writing: Writers have to remember which nouns are considered “proper” and thereby merit capitalization. If you write tuesday or san francisco, you are technically making a mistake. If you do the same thing while speaking, nobody knows.

Other conventions of capitalization. In addition to proper nouns, the following words are capitalized (or upper-cased) in English:

  • the word I;
  • the first word in a sentence;
  • the first word of any complete sentence that follows a colon or that appears in a direct quotation (Rhett turned and said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” and I promise you this: You’ll never be hungry again.);
  • acronyms and initialisms (CIA, UN, FBI, U.S.A. or USA, UK, MSNBC)
  • titles, when used with proper names or when referring to a particular person (e.g., President Obama, the President—but not when used generically, as in How is the president elected in the United States?);
  • the key words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) and the first word in the titles of books, movies, etc. (e.g., The House on Main Street, How Green Was My Valley, The Sound of Music, Desire under the Elms);
  • usually, the first letter of each line of poetry;
  • and several more cases that (a) are minor or (b) I can’t think of at the moment.

A tour of the major European capitals. Those who don’t much like capitalization should take heart in knowing that the conventions of capitalization are entirely cultural. Nouns that are capitalized in English may or may not be capitalized in other languages; there is nothing universal or essential about capitalization.

For instance, the days of the week and months of the year are capitalized in English, but not in French and Spanish. English users somewhat egotistically capitalize the pronoun I, but French does not capitalize je and Spanish does not capitalize yo.

On the other hand, while German goes along with French and Spanish in not capitalizing ich, it differs from them in capitalizing the formal word for you, Sie. Further complicating matters, in Spanish, the full pronouns usted and ustedes are not capitalized, but the abbreviations for these words, Ud. and Uds. are always capitalized.

Das Kapital. German has another curious convention: It capitalizes all nouns—something that most other European languages either find odd or understand but have abandoned. During the most recent round of German spelling reform (or Rechtschreibreform), begun in 1996 and continuing amid considerable controversy to the present day, some spelling conventions have been modernized, at least as far as official German documents are concerned, but not the rule governing noun capitalization. That quaint Rule appears to be something of a sacred Cow that many Writers, major Newspapers, and respected Magazines and Periodicals insist on honoring. Go figure.

Anti-capitalism. There are many other cross-cultural differences in capitalization, but by now you should have a good idea of the arbitrariness of this linguistic convention. This fact may explain the quiet rebellion against capitalization that is simmering in our very own language. Members of the emergent generation of e-mailers, social networkers, texters, and tweeters are largely ignoring conventions like capitalization. The brave, new, and lazy convention among these rebels is to treat every noun as a common noun; such nouns have to get used to being decapitalized.

And if you don’t like it, monday, go find another week to live in!

The snob–slob distinction. Should traditional grammarians resist this anarchic trend or embrace it? Dr. Grammarius is no coward. I occupy the same position on this point as I will assume on many other emerging trends in language use. I vacillate.

In my writing, both professional and personal, I abide by the conventions of standard English usage. I will do this until an emerging convention proves its durability and superiority by completely overwhelming the traditional usage.

On the other hand, as a consumer or recipient of written messages, I do not object to or “correct” clearly emergent usage unless the writer seeks my editorial advice. When asked, I become an editor and ask one simple question: “Who’s your audience?”

If the audience is a bunch of friends or a group of people who routinely use informal diction with one another (e.g., just about everyone on Facebook), it is probably better (i.e., you sound less like a snob) to use a non-formal register (the technical term) in writing. If the audience is not a bunch of buddies, but someone to whom you are applying for a job or with whom you are engaged in a formal or business transaction, standard English is better (i.e., you sound less like a slob).

Nouns: Part One—An Introduction

Nouns are fairly uncomplicated entities. They present for the user of English few pitfalls, other than having to recall them when they are needed and having to learn how to pronounce them.

The vocabulary memorization task is of course shared among learners of any language, but for English learners it may be a bit more challenging than for others because English has an unusually extensive vocabulary. The pronunciation task may also be slightly more difficult in English than in many other languages because English seemingly has more exceptions than rules—the opposite of other languages that I have encountered.

In a future post, I plan to discuss the English lexicon (the technical word for vocabulary), especially its legendary size and adaptability. For now, it is enough to be thankful for the wealth of vocabulary choices that English speakers have. Still, while acknowledging the advantages of a broad range of word choices—versatility, expressiveness, and subtlety—we should also be aware of the challenges that choice presents to the writer or speaker, especially the danger of coming up with a word whose connotations are different from the meaning intended.

This is for a later discussion. Now, let’s begin our discussion of nouns with a definition.

Definition. A noun is usually defined this way:

 A noun is a word that designates a person, place, or thing.

This will do for a start. Using this definition, the sentence

That man drives a cab in Washington, D.C.

contains three nouns, one of which (man) designates a person, the second (cab) a thing, and the third (Washington, D.C.) a place. So far so good.

An introduction to diagramming. The sentence above is diagrammed in this way:

Man drives cab

The three nouns in the sentence (man, cab, Washington, D.C.) appear on horizontal lines, as does the verb (drives). Modifying words (that, a) appear on angled lines, and so does the preposition (in), which introduces the prepositional phrase (in Washington, D.C.).

Grammatically, man is the subject of the sentence, drives is the predicate, cab is the direct object, That is a demonstrative adjective, a is an indefinite article, Washington, D.C. is the object of the preposition in, and the prepositional phrase (in Washington, D.C.) functions as an adverb modifying drives (answering the adverbial question where?).

In sentence diagrams, nouns always appear on horizontal  lines, but they are not the only parts of  speech that do so. Verbs and some types of adjectives (i.e., predicate adjectives) are placed on horizontal lines as well.

For instance, in the sentence The driver of that cab is reckless, the adjective reckless modifies the subject of the sentence, driver. Reckless is a predicate adjective in this sentence, an adjective that is linked to the subject by a linking verb (which used to be called a copulative verb when I was in school, although I think that term has fallen into disfavor because of the youthful snickering that it invariably elicited).

In the conventions of sentence diagramming, the predicate adjective is indicated by the angled line between it and the verb. The angled line is used instead of the vertical line that signals a direct object (e.g., the line between drives and cab in the sentence above). Our new sentence is diagrammed like this:

Reckless cabbie

In this sentence, reckless is graphically shown to be a predicate adjective linked to the subject, driver. Note that the prepositional phrase of that cab is an adjective in this sentence, modifying driver.

In the next post, we will take what we know of nouns and turn to one of the comparatively few pitfalls that nouns present, capitalization.

The Parts of Speech

Traditionally, grammarians recognize eight parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.

It is important to note first that these terms refer not to qualities of particular words in isolation, but to the functions that words and phrases play in particular sentences. No word by itself is a part of speech; a word (or phrase) becomes a part of speech only when it is used in a sentence, and its use in the sentence determines which part of speech it is.

Let’s therefore define a part of speech as follows.

A part of speech is the function that a word or phrase serves in a sentence.

A particular word or phrase functions in a sentence as a noun, verb, adjective, and so on; many English words serve different functions in different sentences.

Shifting parts of speech. Let’s look at some examples of how a given word can function differently—as a different part of speech—in different sentences.

Consider the word word itself. In most sentences, word will function as a noun, defined classically as “a word that designates a person, place, or thing.” The word word has functioned as a noun in the instances in which it has appeared in the preceding paragraphs. It will almost certainly function as a noun in most of the sentences in which it appears subsequently. This is because it usually functions as a noun.

However, it is not safe to call the word word a noun and leave it at that. Take a look at these sentences:

  1. I am not sure how to word my refusal to take part in the ceremony planned for this afternoon.
  2. You have to be very careful about word choice in the sentences you write for different audiences.

In the first of these sentences, word functions as a verb—it describes an action. The writer is discussing the action of putting something into words. In the second sentence, word functions as an adjective—it describes a noun, the word choice. What kind of choice do you have to be careful about? Word choice.

The verbal and adjectival functions are the commonest non-noun uses of the word word, although I can construct a sentence in which word functions arguably as an adverb (“The author of this blog is word happy.”), and I have heard it used alone (“Word!”) as an interjection, meaning roughly Right you are! or You’re speaking the truth!

Thus we have a single, simple word functioning as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and interjection. Nor is the flexibility of the word word unusual. Many words serve as both nouns and verbs (think of couch, table, park, and dog, for example)—and in fact I notice that these four randomly (honest!) selected words can also function as adjectives (e.g., couch cover, table saw, park bench, and dog biscuit). In fact the last can function as an adverb as well (dog tired).

The remarkable flexibility of English permits users to employ words that almost always function as a particular part of speech to serve occasionally as a different one. A famous example of this is the sentence “But me no buts” (often erroneously attributed to Shakespeare), in which the word but, usually used as a conjunction (“I want it but I can’t have it”) or a preposition (“I’ll never love anyone but you”), suddenly becomes both a verb and a noun in a single sentence.

Speakers and writers always have the license to use words in this way. I once heard a parent saying to his son during a Little League game, “Stop becausing me all the time,” and the son replying, “Then stop whying me all the time.” Both were speaking perfect English.

Blogger’s Angst

From the New Yorker online slide show, February 11, 2013

It is worth noting—if only to justify its inclusion in a grammar blog—that this New Yorker cartoon reveals that estimable magazine’s insistence on using its own somewhat conservative—not to say archaic—style. Most writers today, and most magazines, would use the simpler, leaner, and less oh-so-British spelling of the third word in the caption: focusing.

A Preface to the Parts of Speech: The Joys of Weak Inflection

My approach in discussing the parts of speech will be to examine their distinctive features and functions and to identify the pitfalls that each of them presents to the user of English. I focus on pitfalls not because I am of a negative bent, but because my aim is to help English speakers and writers who would like to become more conscientious and proficient in their language use.

Weak inflection: Our lucky break. When considering pitfalls, we should take a moment to congratulate ourselves on our wisdom in choosing to be born into an English-speaking family. This was a lucky move because we became in this way the inheritors of a largely uninflected language (or more properly, a weakly inflected language).

Through a chance of history relating to the manner and time in which our language developed, English is less inflected than many other languages. (Technically, English is an analytical language—one in which meaning is derived primarily from word order—not a fusional language—where meaning is based primarily on inflection.) This fact makes English slightly easier to learn than many other languages, largely because the number of grammatical traps into which we can fall is lower in English than in a more inflected language—although admittedly, English is not entirely immune from such traps.

So what does it mean for a language to be a more or less inflected? In highly inflected languages, words change their form depending on the different grammatical functions that they serve in a sentence. Inflection (called declension in nouns and pronouns and conjugation in verbs) is typically accomplished by the addition of suffixes to a root word (bits added at the end)—although there are languages that use prefixes (bits added at the beginning) and infixes (bits inserted in the middle) for this purpose.

Latin: A case study.To take one example, Latin is a highly inflected language, adding suffixes to words with abandon. For example, the noun puer, which means “boy” in Latin, has four different forms depending on its use in a sentence: puer if it’s the subject, pueri to indicate possession, puero if it’s the indirect object and after most prepositions, and puerum if it’s the direct object or the object of some other prepositions. Move to the plural and you get four more forms in Latin: pueri, puerorum, pueris, and pueros, which are all are rendered by boys in English.

In Latin, nouns, pronouns, and adjectives potentially take five singular and five plural forms, called cases: the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative. And just because five is never enough, Latin makes infrequent use of two additional cases, the locative (which refers only to places: “in Athens” is Athenis, for example) and the vocative (used for direct address: “Yo, Marcus” would be Salve, Marce).

Those tense, moody verbs.Verbs in Latin are even worse than nouns, changing form to indicate differences in person, number, tense, mood, and voice. Thus, we would parse (meaning “analyze, or divide into parts”) the verb form laudabat (he was praising) as the third person singular imperfect indicative active form of the verb laudare, and the form laudemur ([that] we may be praised) as the first person plural present subjunctive passive form of the same verb.

Much to its credit, English resorts to inflection only infrequently—and then only slightly—to serve all necessary grammatical functions. For instance, the English equivalent of laudare, the word praise, takes only four forms: praise, praises, praised, and praising. Those four forms, and only those four, do all the work of indicating person (I praise vs. he praises), number (he praises vs. they praise), tense (I praise, I will praise, I praised, I have praised, I was praising, etc.), mood (The king demands that she praise him publicly), and voice (I praised, I was praised). In accomplishing these tasks, these forms are augmented as necessary by a helping (or auxiliary) verb, such as will, would, was, were, have, had, and so on.

Latin is far less economical, deploying some 90 distinct forms of the verb laudare—and that’s not counting infinitives, participles, and gerunds—to express all the necessary variations.1

And, shockingly, this sort of thing is still going on. It is not only ancient languages that are highly inflected. Many modern languages boast (or complain about) a high degree of inflection, including Russian, German, many of the Slavic languages, and many native American languages.

French and Spanish are moderately inflected: Their nouns have lost most of Latin’s case endings (retaining only gender and number markings), but the verbs in these two romance (i.e., Roman-related) languages have held onto a great number of inflected endings: j’aime, tu aimes, il aime, nous aimons, etc. in French and quiero, quieres, quiere, queremos, and so on in Spanish.

The bottom line is that one of the most challenging tasks that the language learner has to undertake is substantially easier in English than in many other languages. This is the task of assembling in one’s head the necessary forms for building comprehensible and grammatical sentences in another language.

An example of baroque French architecture. Anyone who has struggled to learn French, for example, will recognize the intense mental exercise involved in building in French a sentence like the following:

J’aimerais aller avec toi voir le nouveau film de Brisseau au petit cinéma où nous avons vu le film de James Bond la semaine passée.

This means: I would like to go with you to see the new Brisseau film at the little movie house where we saw the James Bond movie last week.

If you are putting this thing together in French, you not only have to know the vocabulary you want, you also have to:

  1. get the person, number, tense, mood, and voice of the verb aimer right;
  2. correctly put the following verb (aller) in the infinitive;
  3. remember that you are talking to a close enough friend to use toi instead of vous;
  4. get the use of another infinitive (voir) right;
  5. make sure you use the correct form of the adjective nouveau to agree with the masculine singular noun film;
  6. do the same with petit and cinéma;
  7. pull another correct verb form out of your hat, this time in a compound tense (avons vu); and
  8. cap it all off with one more instance of adjective–noun agreement (semaine passée).


In English, by contrast, if you can summon up the vocabulary you need, the only changes you have to worry about—the only inflected forms in the sentence—are the I, the easily constructed would like, and the simple past tense saw.

See what I mean when I call us lucky?

1 If you’re curious, the 90 Latin forms are laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant, laudabam, laudabas, laudabat, laudabamus, laudabatis, laudabant, laudavi, laudavisti, laudavit, laudavimus, laudavistis, laudaverunt, laudaveram, laudaveras, laudaverat, laudaveramus, laudaveratis, laudaverant, laudavissem, laudavisses, laudavisset, laudavissemus, laudavissetis, laudavissent, laudarem, laudares, laudaret, laudaremus, laudaretis, laudarent, laudor, laudaris, laudatur, laudamur, laudamini, laudantur, laudabo, laudabis, laudabit, laudabimus, laudabitis, laudabunt, laudavero, laudaveris, laudaverit, laudaverimus, laudaveritis, laudaverint, laudabar, laudabaris, laudabatur, laudabamur, laudabamini, laudabantur, laudabor, laudaberis, laudabitur, laudabimur, laudabimini, laudabuntur, laudem, laudes, laudet, laudemus, laudetis, laudent, lauder, lauderis, laudetur, laudemur, laudemini, laudentur, laudarer, laudareris, laudaretur, laudaremur, laudaremini, laudarentur, laudavero, laudaveris, laudavetit, laudaverimus, laudaveritis, and laudaverint. Good grief! My spell checker just committed suicide.

Lessons from a Spanish Class

The genesis of this project was a Beginning Spanish course that I am taking at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. This is an excellent course filled with interesting students who are all trying hard to learn a new language as adults, some taking Spanish for the first time, and others returning for a second try after a year or two of study in high school.

For some of my classmates, I have noticed, the natural difficulty of learning a new language has been exacerbated by a shortage of explicit experience with grammar—not just in Spanish, but in English too. Many of them have never had to use or understand terms like mood, tense, case, voice, indicative, infinitive, gerund, participle, subject, predicate, appositive, direct object, indirect object, reflexive, and so on—the language of grammar.

Now, the students in this class are without exception hard-working, intelligent, motivated, ambitious, and interesting persons who have a sincere interest in learning Spanish. By and large they are also young—in every case younger than I, mostly by decades. In confronting Spanish (for most of them their first foreign language), they are experiencing first-hand, without necessarily knowing it, the absence of the vocabulary and concepts of grammar, which are essential tools for understanding how languages work.

The fact is that most elementary, middle, and high schools in the United States today provide little or no direct instruction in English grammar. For this reason, my classmates have never in any of their prior schooling had anything but a mild exposure to grammar—and certainly not the lethal dose that I got during the antique form of primary education to which I was subjected. As a result, they find themselves with no convenient way—no vocabulary—to discuss grammatical concepts. I believe that this makes it harder for them to grasp, study, and master their new language.

A cost–benefit analysis. I found myself thinking that if these students had been force-fed English grammar the way I was by the good nuns in my past, way back in the twentieth century, they would perhaps be better prepared for the language learning task. Personally, every time I face the daunting task of learning a new language, I thank the lengthy grammar drills that were forced on me when I was in elementary school (which was actually called grammar school in that era—for good reason).

I don’t mean to imply that the strict grammar regimen that I experienced was an unalloyed blessing; I am aware that it came at a price. As I speak with my classmates, I find among them an impressive history of exposure to many subjects and disciplines that I never received. I am left with the feeling that if I had taken as many classes in art, music, science, physical education, and higher math as these students have taken in their schooling, I would probably be more aesthetic, stronger, smarter, and more scientifically clever than I am. But these topics were not a significant part of my early education. In fact, I have had to play catch-up on all of them. Except physical education, which I may get to some day.

And it was this realization in my Spanish class that led directly to my decision to create a blog about language, where grammatical terms and concepts can roam free and be discussed without fear or favor; where my readers and I can discuss with humor and kindness the elements of both elegant and awkward English sentences; where the parts of speech can come out of the closet and thrive; and where students learning a new language can find an explanation of the grammatical terms that they are meeting for the first time, and can ask questions and receive direct answers about them.

The next post, and many posts thereafter, will be devoted to an exploration of grammar, starting with a discussion of the parts of speech.