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Proper Names in Writing

A proper name is a noun or noun phrase that designates a particular person, place, or object, such as Nicola Tesla, Valley Forge, and the Grand Canyon.

A proper noun is a noun that names a particular person, place or thing and begins with a capital letter. 'Jane' and 'New Year' are just a couple of examples.

Most of them (e.g. Jupiter, China, New York) are NOT usually preceded by articles or other determiners and they are mostly in the singular.

What exactly is "proper"? According to the online Macmillan dictionary:

1. suitable
2. moral
3. considered real/serious
4. behaving politely
5. in its most exact sense
6. complete in every detail
7. of particular type

In one word... it means 'right', that is in this case 'the acceptable kind'.

Why is this important for writing?

Indeed... why should one care for the proper names? And how many of you haven't had your essays returned and a lot of corrections in red ink, including the capital letters of the proper nouns you were spelling in small letters?

In China, for example, based on their characters which don't change into capitals, it doesn't matter if they are spelling their names in what we call  'small letters'. The same in Arabic and, I wonder, in how many other languages?

Well, this is what gives those learners of English difficulties, on learning the use of capital letters AND actually using them correctly. However, this is the least crucial matter for our lesson today.

It is very important to use proper names for the person, thing or place you are referring to (as opposed to the common name for the same) because this is the most effective way of pointing out to the reader what exactly you are talking about. It is PRECISELY reaching for the EXACT thing, person or place you mean, therefore by using it, you give your written piece more precision, to say the least - even magic, if you were to consider what's in a name.

Consider the following example:

Adlestrop is the name of the train station where this poem was written, expressing the poet's feelings and perceptions of the reality of the moment.

Let's read it lacking the proper names to start with. Afterwards, knowing what is happening in the poem, I hope you will have the patience to go through it again, this time adding the proper names as well, including the author.

The Station's Name

Yes, I remember the station's
Name - because one afternoon
Of heat the express train drew up there
Unwontedly. Like some tune,

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was the station's name - just the name -

And trees, and some wild herb, and grass,
And wild flowers, and haycocks dry;
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the clouds up in the sky.

And for that minute a bird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of the parish and the surrounding shire.

Now I'd like you to reflect on how you felt reading the first version. Did you care for the place much, let alone for what happened there? Did you recognise it? Could one recognise it, even if one lived there, using the station every day?

OK, well... it's missing the proper names for 'those things'. See how you feel about reading it the second time around. How does the poem come to live, only by revealing the names of the place, the plants and birds as protagonists?

Adlestrop

Yes, I remember Adlestrop
The name - because one afternoon
Of heat the express train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop - only the name -

And willows, and willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry;
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

                              By Edward Thomas

Recall how you felt reading the first version. Did you care for the place much, let alone for what happened there? Did you recognise it? Could one recognise it, even if one lived there, using the station every day?

The second time around, how did the poem come to live, only by revealing the names of the place, the plants and birds as protagonists?

The concluding piece of advice is...

A writer never misses a chance to call a thing by its proper name.

The untrained writer is forever overlooking this most precious and available device for being particular, for defining exactly his authority, for casting exactly his spell, for defining exactly the object of his attention.

Cosequently, whenever you can, try to choose the 'right' words - use your proper names for what you wish to express. It's magic for the reader.

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