Monday, September 19, 2011

Why Nouns Matter, part 1: Proper Names

I've been thinking for some time now that I should do a series on parts of speech. This is the linguistics-geeky part of me coming together with my writerly side, and the side that always loved grammar in school. So starting today, and running over the next few weeks, I'll be considering parts of speech as fine-tuned weapons for writers.

Today my focus is nouns. (Didn't anyone ever tell you that the noun is mightier than the sword?) In fact, nouns are a huge topic, so I'm dividing them up into two parts - Proper Names and Common Nouns. Proper names are those nouns that denote unique entities, such as a person, a company, a city, or a country. They are generally capitalized, and don't have to take an article like "a" or "the" (though sometimes they do; I'll write a piece about articles later). In English, the names of weekdays and months also fall into this category.

So why do they matter? Why are they worth a writer's special attention? (I'm sure your mind is teeming with ideas already!)

I'll start in a slightly unexpected place. There is no single tool more uniquely effective for indicating the genre of your story than the proper name. Why? Because the instant readers encounter a name they don't know from our world, they will know they are in another one. It doesn't have to be the name of the protagonist. Mention the town of Gorindon and your reader will probably guess fantasy. Mention Kasemsarn's World and chances are your reader will guess science fiction. Mention Miami, by contrast, and your reader will guess real-world (and if you're pushing the real world in a speculative direction, you'll have to do work elsewhere to convince them).

Wikipedia helpfully notes that proper names "...are used to denote a particular person, place, or object without regard to any descriptive meaning the word or phrase may have (for example, a town called "Newtown" may be, but does not necessarily have to be, a new [recently built] town)." But in fact the content of names is extremely evocative, and writers should be sure to use it to their advantage. I've seen a lot of science fictional names take advantage of folding in the word "New," much in the same way that it was used when Europeans began their colonies in the Americas. If you can have New England and New Hampshire, then why not have New London or New Sacramento? In this way the content of a name can give you historical information about the location and its significance to the people who live there.

Then, of course, there's the feel of names. Names come in different flavors, leading people to conclude that a person is a good guy or a bad guy, or sleazy, or proper, etc. The feel of a name generally arises from a resemblance to another word with good or bad connotations. There is also a degree of onomatopoeia involved, where certain sounds will make you think "small" or "light" or "pointy" or "bright" and others will make you think "big," "heavy," "round," "dark." The classic example of this is the character Snape from the Harry Potter books. Snake, anyone? In fact, all of the names in those books are extremely evocative - but so are real world names. People spend tons of time looking through baby name books and lists for just this reason. What does the name mean? What is its history? Does it sound like it comes from a particular country? Does it sound like it belongs to someone of a particular racial background?

When it comes to company names, we can draw on associations with existing companies by creating a name that sounds similar, or we can give the name a "marketing" feel by emulating the way companies actually name themselves. (I loved naming "Terrafirm" and "the Paradise Company.") Because all of these strong associations already exist in the real world, we can certainly take advantage of them when using proper names in fiction.

Lastly here I'm going to mention weekdays and months. If you're working in science fiction or fantasy, you should most definitely pay attention to these. There is an enormously different feel to a fantasy world that uses "Tuesday" and "November" from one that has its own names for weekdays and months. Using the existing names implies a connection with our own world, and suggests alternate history or steampunk... certainly one could imagine other varieties of connection, but if those words are going to appear, there has to be a good reason. Some might argue that they could just be "translation," taking the way the people of this world talk about time and rendering it in a way that readers would find easy to understand, but I wouldn't suggest this. Not with names of such distinct identity. The way a group of people organizes time, and names it, can have a lot of significance. I did use a partial translation method when I designed the calendar for Varin, inasmuch as I took our model of naming weekdays after deities, and used it for their purposes. If we can have Wednesday (Odin's day) and Thursday (Thor's day), then I can repurpose that and let the Varini have Maiday, Plisday, Besday, Trigisday, etc. At the same time I did make sure that I had created the deities in question and figured out their significance to the society. For the months I decided I would use terms (for example, Soremor) that came from another country, and whose meaning was opaque to these people (but perhaps not to those of its country of origin!).

I'm sure that I haven't covered everything here, so I'd love it if you could add your own thoughts and ideas about proper names and how to use them to your advantage in writing. And of course, any suggestions for things to add to upcoming articles in the series (which I know will include articles, verbs, adverbs, and lots of other great stuff) are also welcome.


  1. You know, I grew up just outside New London...

  2. I kinda envy you and the English language. Being able to emphasize through capitalization is great because as a reader you most probably notice it. In German any noun is capitalized, not just common names.
    So, a great tool less for us.
    However, when I want to emphasize an adjective and a noun, I capitalize both. As in "Neues Testament" e.g. But often a capitalized adjective "feels" like a spelling error.

    Good article, though! It's true with the association of certain sounds of names.

    Greets Dani

  3. Thanks for your comment, Vega! I do remember that about German nouns - but I didn't know about capitalizing the adjective in the same noun phrase for emphasis. Different languages often have to "solve" the same types of problems of expression, but they tend all to do that in different ways.

  4. This post comes from nlisa, who had trouble with the Blogger comment frame:

    Yes! And it’s so fun to break down character names within a story to subtly show cultural, ethical, religious, racial differences among characters by using different “families” of names. A not subtle example is George Chester Wallace III vs Agamemnon – already you’re clued in to two wildly divergent histories. And when you’re writing speculative fiction you can make up the names whole cloth to get a similar effect.

  5. I entirely agree, nlisa. Fun for all, and thanks so much for commenting!

  6. You make some interesting points, especially regarding proper names. My sci fi novel, Universe Ocean, begins in our solar system, but doesn't stay there past the end of the prologue. Therefore, I had to set up the premise quickly within the reader's mind. With the use of one proper name, the Japanese Solar Commerce Fleet, I was (hopefully) able to create a broad picture of the time period and setting. And just as importantly, they’re not there just as a placeholder; the JSCF plays an integral role in the plot as well.

    I could write a whole paragraph on the implications that the existence of the JSCF creates, but that would be defeating the purpose. Instead, I’ll just mention that you can read an early version of my prologue at to see how this was done. If I’ve done my job as a writer then whether or not I even mention the exact year the story begins becomes irrelevant. I’ve already painted a future landscape in the reader's mind with a single proper noun.


  7. Useful, aren't they. :) Good luck with your project.

  8. Here's a comment from Nicole Lisa that didn't make it through for some reason...

    Yes! And it’s so fun to break down character names within a story to subtly show cultural, ethical, religious, racial differences by using different “families” of names. A not subtle example is George Chester Wallace III and Agamemnon – already you’re clued in to two wildly divergent histories. When you’re writing speculative fiction you can make up the names whole cloth to get a similar effect.

    Great point, Nicole!