Proper nouns

In the One Big Happy of May 30th, Ruthie falls into the pit of use and mention:

There’s an adjective proper as defined by Ruthie’s mother. Then there’s the adjective proper in the idiomatic nominals proper noun / name. And that’s just the beginning of the problem.

From NOAD:

noun proper noun (also proper name): a name used for an individual person, place, or organization, spelled with initial capital letters, e.g., LarryMexico, and Boston Red Sox. Often contrasted with common noun.

Distinguishing proper nouns from common nouns is no easy task, with many snares for the semantically unwary (why is James a proper noun, when it’s used to refer to different people on different occasions? and why is boss a common noun, when in most contexts its reference is unique?). But James certainly is a proper noun.

On the other hand, Ruthie’s unruly friend James isn’t any kind of noun at all (or any kind of verb, for that matter): he’s a boy, not a linguistic expression. James is one syllable long, James’s extent is spoken of as height rather than length and is measured in units like feet or meters rather than syllables, so it would be bizarre to ask how tall James is, or how many syllables long James is.

So it is with the proper / common distinction, which applies to linguistic expressions (like James and boss), but not to human beings (like Ruthie’s friend James or your boss at work).

Footnote. Not only are the adjectives proper and common both ambiguous between a technical use in syntax and semantics and an ordinary-language use (‘fitting, socially acceptable’ and ‘widespread, frequent’, respectively), but common also has a second technical use (in biology), in the nominal common name, as opposed to scientific (or taxonomic) name. From Wikipedia:

In biology, a common name of a taxon or organism (also known as a vernacular name, English name, colloquial name, trivial name, trivial epithet, country name, popular name, or farmer’s name) is a name that is based on the normal language of everyday life; this kind of name is often contrasted with the scientific name for the same organism, which is Latinized. A common name is sometimes frequently used, but that is by no means always the case.

Common names (in the biological sense) are usually common nouns (in the grammatical sense) — dandelion, sage, etc. — while scientific / taxonomic names, from genus names on up, are proper nouns (in the grammatical sense) — the genera Taraxacum, Salvia, the family Lamiaceae, etc. But since the common names and the genus names function effectively as synonyms, many people are inclined to treat biological common names as proper nouns and so to capitalize them, especially when referring to species: Taraxacum officinale, the common dandelion (or Common Dandelion); Salvia pratensis, the meadow sage (or Meadow Sage).

There are genuine classificatory issues here, but they’re seriously balled up by the use of common as a technical term both in grammar (opposed to proper) and in biology (opposed to scientific).


2 Responses to “Proper nouns”

  1. Dennis Preston Says:

    “Effectively” is an important notion here; many common (nonscientific) names cover very different territory that the organism indicated by the scientific name.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes. I chose my words carefully. Still, the result is that many handbooks of plants and flowers are littered with piles of Capitalized Common Names, so that the books’ text looks like Over-Enthusiastic Ad Copy.

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