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).