5 Examples of Proper Style for Proper Nouns

By Mark Nichol

A proper noun, also known as a proper name, is capitalized to indicate that it denotes a unique entity or phenomenon. Many entities or phenomena are widely known by their names. Sometimes, however, writers misunderstand or misrepresent the label. Here are five examples of proper nouns that illustrate the importance of verifying precise nomenclature and considering the context in which it is used.

1. Big Ben
This is the official nickname, specifically, of the bell in the Elizabeth Tower, the iconic structure often used as a visual shortcut to identifying London in photographs, on television, and in films. (The tower, previously called simply the Clock Tower, was renamed in 2012 in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.) However, popularly, the phrase generally refers to the clock in the tower or the tower itself.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
This US government agency’s official name is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it retains the initials, CDC, of its previous designation, the Centers for Disease Control; note that the first word is plural. (A similar example is the name of the National Institutes — not Institute — of Health.)

3. Halley’s Comet
The technical name for this peanut-shaped orbiting body roughly the size of a big-league Himalayan mountain is Comet Halley. (actually, 1P/Halley is its astronomy-catalog designation.) Because of its relative familiarity, however, due to unusually frequent reappearances (roughly every seventy-five years), it is also called Halley’s Comet.

The traditional pronunciation among astronomers rhymes with alley, but, perhaps as a result of contamination from the name of the seminal rock-and-roll band Bill Haley and the Comets, most laypeople pronounce it to rhyme with daily. (No one knows how discoverer Edmund Halley pronounced his name, but I’d give the odds to the stargazers’ convention.)

4. New York
The largest US city is popularly called New York (the official name is “the City of New York”), but writers should determine whether, depending on the context, it should be referred to as New York City to distinguish it from New York State. (In this designation, and in “Washington State” — so as not to confuse the state with Washington, DC — state is capitalized even though it’s not part of the state’s official name.)

5. Sierra Nevada
The name of the mountain range forming the backbone of California — a name shared by several other ranges throughout the world — from the Spanish phrase meaning “snowy mountains,” should not be pluralized with the letter s, and “the Sierra Nevada Mountains” is partially redundant. (The same is true of the truncation “the Sierras”; call it “the Sierra.”)

Many other geographical designations are redundant: Fujiyama translates as “Mount Fuji”; the words sahara, gobi, and negev all mean “desert”; and the first word in “Rio Grande,” as well as Avon and Don — the names for rivers in England and Russia, respectively — means “river.” Although it’s not wrong to use the word mount, desert, or river before or after the name of a geographic feature that means “mountain,” “desert,” or “river,” the common noun can often safely be omitted (for example, “Fujiyama,” “the Sahara,” and “the Rio Grande”). Note, too, that river, when it precedes a river’s name (for example, “the river Nile”), is always descriptive and not part of the name.

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5 Responses to “5 Examples of Proper Style for Proper Nouns”

  • Tiller

    I took three semesters of Greek in college, and I remember the professor joking about the Potomac River being the River River. Potomas is the ancient Greek word for river.

    It’s also the second root in hippopotamus. The first root of hippopotamus is hippos, the Greek word for horse. Horses of the river or riverhorses would serve as accurate equivalents.

  • Dan Erickson

    Good examples. We just went through this yesterday in a curriculum committee meeting. Instructors like to capitalize their course subjects even when they’re not proper nouns.

  • Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

    Excellent stuff!
    On the issue of Sierra Nevada, I would also add that Nevada, pronounced by Nevadans, has an American short and twangy “a” in its second syllable, not the customary more international sounding long “ah”.
    Nevadans will easily distinguish between locals and non-locals by this particularity in pronunciation.

  • DHH

    Texans generally capitalize the different regions of the state, at least in the first usage. So we have North Texas, East Texas, the Gulf Coast (which includes three distinct areas), South Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, or simply the Valley (which isn’t a valley at all—it is flat coastal prairie), the Hill Country—a specific part of Central Texas, and West Texas (which includes the Trans-Pecos, and the Panhandle which is subdivided into the High Plains—which lies north of the South Plains).

    The most northern part of the state is the Panhandle (sometimes called the square part of the state), but it’s not in North Texas. That’s where Dallas is. And West, Texas, where the recent terrible explosions occurred, lies on the western-most edge of East Texas. Sometimes the boundaries are distinct, and sometimes the boundaries are covered in trees, so it’s hard to see.

    I know it seems excessive, but anyone who writes about Texas needs to check and double-check the regional nomenclature if it is critical to the context. Botch one and the prose goes clunk, and so does the writer’s credibility.

    Obviously this tip is important for any state, and when I write (even casually) about a place I don’t know well, I will telephone a local chamber of commerce to ask about these fine details.

  • thebluebird11

    1- Enjoyed the post, although it took me all day–and most of the night–to get to it. And thank you to DHH for the Texas education.
    2- As for The Department for People Who Want to Stick Their 2 Cents In, I believe that in Israel, the Negev is a specific desert/region. The Hebrew word for a generic desert is midbar.
    3- I am going to add one of my pet peeves: People who say “The La Brea Tar Pits.” Talk about the Department of Redundancy Department!
    4- I think you’ve already covered, in another post, issues of redundancy in other contexts, like “ATM machine,” “PIN number,” etc.

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