5 Points on Proper Usage for Proper Nouns

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What’s in a name? Any one of many complications, apparently. Here are some rules about how to style proper nouns:

1. Capitalizing People’s Names

Several writers and artists (or their publishers) have been identified in print with their names styled in all lowercase letters. That’s all well and good for their own books or albums, but otherwise their names should play by the rules: It’s “E. E. Cummings,” not “e e cummings.” The same goes for writer Bell Hooks, singer K. D. Lang, and others.

2. Case in Corporate and Product Names

Starting in the 1990s, high tech corporations started getting high-techy with their identities and with names of products and services by employing names starting with lowercase letters, capitalizing the first letter of the second element of a closed compound, or both. (The technique had been used in isolation for several decades but became trendy only at the close of the twentieth century.)

Popularly known as camel case (from the humplike uppercase letter in the middle of the word), this style was probably inspired by early programming languages, which often distinguished each new term within a word string devoid of letter spaces by capitalizing it. Technically, the style of names with both initial and medial capitalization, such as YouTube, is called Pascal case, after the programming language Pascal, while the term “camel case” applies to names such as eBay with lowercase initial letters and medial capitalization.

Sometimes, a fine line is drawn between honoring these unconventional conventions and unnecessarily indulging corporate branding. In the case of camel case and Pascal case, retain the aberrant styling, but some style guides recommend recasting sentences to avoid beginning them with a word starting with a lowercase letter.

3. Names as Distinguished from Logos

However, distinguish between company names and their logos: Omit the exclamation point when referring to Yahoo unless you’re effusive or indignant. Also, a simple hyphen can stand in for the stylized asterisk in E-Trade’s name, and though the company’s copyright statement uses all uppercase letters, nothing requires you to apply this inelegant form. And never apply a symbol for a registered trademark or service mark to the name of any corporate entity or its products unless your company is partnering with that firm and the partnership dictates such a courtesy.

4. Initials in People’s Names

Should you insert letter spaces between a person’s first and middle initials? As with many other niggling details, it depends on the type of publications. Most books and many magazines separate initials (“A. B. See”), while less formal publications don’t; newspapers tend to be minimalistic. The same rule holds for more than two initials (“J. B. S. Haldane”). But when a well-known figure is identified by first, middle, and last initials alone, omit both letter spaces and periods: “JFK.”

5. Particles in People’s Names

When referring to a person with a name that includes such particles as De, Von, and Mac or their variants, consult to a biographical dictionary to confirm the capitalization style and whether they are separated from the name’s principal element; most of them (including Mac) can vary in both regards from one person to another.

Whether to retain the particle when referring to someone by last name alone is a complicated issue; the answer varies by language, by tradition, and by publication. (In the case of a lowercase particle traditionally retained, when the surname appears alone, such as a subsequent reference to Vincent van Gogh, preserve this style except at the beginning of a sentence.)

If you’re writing or editing for a particular publication, consult the appropriate style guide about this issue, or trust the publication’s editors to conform your usage to their style. If you’re self-publishing in print or online, investigate current usage and make your own choice. Either way, be consistent.

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22 thoughts on “5 Points on Proper Usage for Proper Nouns”

  1. It seems rather arrogant to say people should not respect e e cumming’s choice of name (should we also insist on calling him Edward?), and inconsistent with the next point, where you say people should emulate corporate camel case and Pascal case.

  2. Hopefully, writers know how to ‘Capitalize People’s Names’ by now. Unless, of course, a person has a specific way of writing their name. I believe there are always exception to a rule.

  3. The ultimate authority on how to capitalize a person’s name is that person.

    If a poet spells his name lower case, who are we to tell him he’s wrong?

    Capitalization, punctuation and spelling are important when it comes to names. I use my maiden name as my middle name. If people get confused and throw in a hyphen, I forgive them. But if someone were to try to tell me that I don’t know how to spell my own name and insist on hyphenating my name after I corrected them, I would be angry.

    Thirty years ago I worked as the lifestyles editor for a newspaper. We ran announcements of meetings of women’s clubs. Sometimes the new PR person for a club would call and ask our style for lists of names. Should names all follow the format of Mrs. James Smith, or should they all follow the format of Mrs. Susan Smith? The caller felt (or likely was told) that consistency was required.

    I responded that each person should decide what her name was. Some might want to use their husbands’ names, and that was fine. I felt confident that some would want to use their own first name. Some might be unmarried and use Miss or even (gasp) Ms.! And while it was uncommon in our area then, it wasn’t unheard of for married women not to take their husband’s name at all. This made sense to the callers and they usually seemed relieved.

    When it comes to historical figures, your tips on how to find their preferences regarding particles are helpful. However, those tips on going with the preference of the individual also apply to initials and whole names.

    When it comes to interview subjects, things are much easier. Make sure you always ask the person how they spell their name. That makes things very simple.

    Names are very personal. We must do what we can to respect an individual’s preferences when writing their name.

  4. @Cecily: read this:

    (But even if he wanted to be called “e e cummings”, I wouldn’t “respect” it; it’s not his choice to make)

  5. The California Institute of Technology is sometimes referred to as “CalTech” but their style guide is “Caltech.” So much for high tech.

    The use of “CalTech” (before 1928) is older than Pascal (1968).

  6. Connie Oswald Stofko: Hear! Hear!

    It seems to me that names are, by their very nature, a fertile source of outliers–folks who don’t follow what everyone else thinks are the rules. Starting with unusual spellings and morphing into unusual orthography. I am blessed with both first and last names that only one out of ten people spell correctly without correction and guidance–and an even smaller percentage can pronounce my last name correctly. I long ago gave up being offended by the inability of the world to call me by my name; by the same token, however, I think it is a truly gracious and respectful act to pay attention to another person’s name, and get it right–even if “right” seems counterintuitive or downright weird to me.

    (btw. Ms Stofko–welcome to DWT? Maybe I am hallucinating, but it seems you showed up out of sequence, which implies moderation. . .which suggests “new to site.” If I’m off base, feel free to lambaste me–otherwise, hey, welcome aboard!)

  7. Connie and Kathryn:

    As I alluded in my post, when Bell Hooks writes a book, her name can appear on or in it anyway she wants it, as long as the publishing company concurs. When K. D. Lang records an album, she can style her name as she sees fit on the CD cover, in the liner notes, and in any other self-produced publicity materials. On their own Web sites, they can knock themselves out.

    But when it comes to printed or online representation of their names, they have to color within the lines. Otherwise, it’s a slippery slope for people who legally change their names to monikers that won’t fit on an envelope, or alter their names to consist of the type of symbols that appear in dialogue bubbles above the heads of cartoon characters who have just stubbed their toes. A nonhyphenated double surname is one thing, but capitalization should be nonnegotiable.

  8. Mark, I still don’t understand how ” capitalization should be nonnegotiable” of people’s personal names is consistent with following the non-standard capitalisation of some corporations. Is it purely a legal or trademark issue?

  9. Cecily:

    You make a good point, and it was poor form of me not to point out that my opinion here is just that, rather than the conventional rule. That said, where does one draw the line — especially when there is more than one axis to consider?

    For one thing, how famous does a person have to be before you conform to their unique orthographical styling? Do we have to indulge the bearer of any noncomforming name? What if you can’t easily verify a nonstandard treatment of a noncelebrity name?

    For another thing, what if I decide my name is MaRk NiChOl? Should a magazine profile of me have to honor that eccentricity? What if I decide the next day that my name is mArK nIcHoL? Then what?

    I realize I’m taking this point to an absurd conclusion, but attention must be paid to ramifications. Corporations sometimes change their names, but they know their reputation will suffer if they do so too often, or create a name that’s too unusual.

    The two artists whose names I used as examples are not pushing too hard, but the gentle pushing is on a slippery slope, and it annoys me. My mantra, as I’ve mentioned elswhere, is “Minimize exceptions.” I guess that means that I should insist on styling heretical corporate names as “Ebay” and “Youtube.”

    I retract my curmudgeonly strictures about personal names, but I do so under protest.

  10. My short answer is “yes”. I think everyone has the right to choose what they are called and how: name, spelling, pronunciation and capitalisation, so if you wanted to be mArK, I would respect that and address you as such (it would also have the advantage of making it clear I was addressing you, not any of the other Marks around).

    I think it is the same as acknowledging George Eliot as the author of “Middlemarch”, rather than Mary Anne Evans, and following Robert’s preference of being Robert, Rob, Robbie, Bob, Bobby or even Flibble.

  11. “Whether to retain the particle when referring to someone by last name alone is a complicated issue; the answer varies by language, by tradition, and by publication. (In the case of a lowercase particle traditionally retained, when the surname appears alone, such as a subsequent reference to Vincent van Gogh, preserve this style except at the beginning of a sentence.)”

    According to Dutch tradition, however, the V is capitalised when the surname appears alone, with no first name or initial.
    So it’s ‘Vincent van Gogh’ or V. van Gogh’ but ‘Mr. Van Gogh / Dr. Van Gogh / ‘I like this painting by Van Gogh

  12. Thank you for this post. I like reading and learning from them (especially as a nonnative!).

    I would like to add a note to the part about particles and notably about Van Gogh. If you want to adhere to the Dutch tradition/rules it would be slightly different from what you suggest.

    In Dutch, particles are always capitalised, except when they appear after the first name or initials.
    So it would be: Vincent van Gogh and V. van Gogh.
    And: Mr./Dr./Prof. Van Gogh and ‘I like paintings by Van Gogh’.

    I hope my comment is useful 🙂

  13. Mark–not curmudgeonly. And you make valid points about those who abuse our courtesy and respect by adopting names that cannot be pronounced, or by taking up name-changing as a hobby. But the most prominent of those in modern times has also given us (albeit, not by his own action) a workable solution: “the _____ formerly known as ________.” Actually, my preference would be to ignore such attention sponges altogether, thus robbing their antics of the expected reward–but I realize that sometimes a professional writer has no choice.

  14. It was actually NOT the poet’s choice to treat his name as “e. e. cummings.” This was a treatment the graphic designers of his books used for a while (but haven’t for 20+ years). For more information, see the definitive article on this subject at (already mentioned).

    What folks like K. D. Lang or Bell Hooks wish to do on the covers of their books or publicity is up to them. However, in their case they *do* wish all lowercase treatment, whereas Cummings did not. For Lang and Hooks, however, proper references to them outside of their own albums/books/publicity can and should refer to them with standard initial capitalization.

    Michael Dylan Welch

  15. I’m a native Arabic speaker and my name is characterized with a distinctive middle sound that’s not found in english sounds. I write it this way (Asa’ad). however am not sure if it’s the best way to spell it. here is a description of this middle letter.
    a fricative pharyngeal sound. it’s just like the initial of (Abdullah). we used to write this letter on the web as (3) symbol. this way my name would come out like (As3ad). However I need a more conventional way. would you help me on this please.

  16. Michael: Thanks for the link. However, even though E E Cummings was a bad example, he was just an example. I stand by my belief that it is common courtesy to address people in the way of their choosing (regardless of my personal preference).

  17. Cicily, I agree — common courtesy would have me refer to a person the way he or she chooses it, which is surely also why Rolling Stone magazine refers to k.d. lang with lowercase letters, and why an interview with bell hooks in a literary journal would surely use lowercase too. But an academic essay about poetry might be expected to say “Bell Hooks,” as would a bibliographical entry. If Bell Hooks happened to see a crime and was interviewed by a reporter, I would expect a newspaper report to treat her name as Bell Hooks. So it’s also a matter of context.

    Also compare this issue to the names of books or journals. Time magazine is all-caps on its front cover, and Marie Claire magazine is all lowercase. I wouldn’t for a second retain the graphical treatment in a reference to the magazine, as in “Petunia has published her haiku in Time and Marie Claire magazines” (imagine the proper italic for magazine names, which I can’t include here). A graphic design shouldn’t be confused with the *name* of something. Likewise, what a musician or author might want on the cover of their products isn’t necessarily the same as how you have to refer to them in other contexts, so some judgment is needed.

    In any case, as you indicate, Cummings is a different matter because of the disconnect between the popular misperception (an all-lowercase treatment of his name) and the poet’s actual preference (using usual initial capitals). For Cummings, his name should probably never be treated with all-lowercase letters (except in a direct quote, where I would put “(sic)” after the lowercase treatment, meaning to indicate that the lowercasing is wrong, but preserved because it’s a quotation). However, I *would* treat K. D. Lang and Bell Hooks with initial capitals in certain contexts, without hesitation — but not in contexts that should be deferential to these people, as in certain music or literary magazine articles, respectively.

    Aren’t capitals and lowercase letters a pain sometimes? Let’s all speak Japanese instead.


  18. Michael, re “Cicily, I agree — common courtesy would have me refer to a person the way he or she chooses it”. I would agree, were it not for the fact you misspelled my name. 😉

  19. Maybe I am hallucinating, but it seems you showed up out of sequence, which implies moderation. . .

    Is that what it is? Out-of-order posts appear all the time on this blog. I always assumed it was just some weird queuing problem.

    My short answer is “yes”. I think everyone has the right to choose what they are called and how: name, spelling, pronunciation and capitalisation, so if you wanted to be mArK, I would respect that and address you as such

    What if he insisted on being called Μαρκ or Марк or ‏مرك‎, or the symbol used by the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince during the time when he wasn’t known as Prince?

    For people named in languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet, there are often several more or less standard transliteration systems…if you’re writing about the language using one system, and mention a person who has expressed a preference for transliterating his name using a different system, should you follow his preferences and switch systems mid-sentence?

    Can I insist you write my name in 11pt boldface Helvetica (regardless of the face and size used for surrounding text)?

    People can change the spelling of their names, to some limited extent (can’t call yourself “Greg” and spell it “Xithor”), but capitalization, font styling, etc.? No. Just no.

  20. Peter, I stand by what I wrote, i.e. that I will use the name, spelling, pronunciation and capitalisation that the bearer prefers.

    I would not bow to their choice of font name, size or boldness because that is something that can and should vary according to context: different for a poster and a postage stamp.

    If the name uses characters that I don’t have, I would expect them to suggest an alternative. I can’t read or write any non-Roman scripted language, so I doubt such a request would come as a surprise.

  21. @Cecily. No no no. Have to agree with Paul and MN on this one. Names are personal property, true, but the English language is the commons. So, if your name is Jon and you want to spell it that way, instead of John, that is entirely up to you. Just because one is a more common, or traditional spelling doesn’t make it mandatory. So we have Jeffreys and Donns and Eriqs (god help us), all the cutesy girly spellings with I’s on the end of everything, and we just put up with it. BUT, capitalizing a proper name is a rule of the English language . It is not a matter of “preference” or anything personal. You don’t get to violate basic rules of the common language that belongs to everyone any more than you get to drive on the wrong side of the street (which would, of course, be the left side, LOL) because you want to express your specialness and creativity in motor transport. Just because it is your car doesn’t mean you don’t have to abide by the rules of the road. You can pick the color, model, etc., but the operating rules are not private property. I would agree that allowing corporate entities to break the same rules with camel-case names, etc., is also not permissible and for the same reason. iPhone is a trademark or a logo, not an English word or name. How exactly you do write such gimmicks, can present a problem, though. Iphone would not be pronounced “eye phone” by regular English rules. I-phone?

  22. An interesting case of two middle initials:
    Samuel F. B. Morse or possibly Samuel F.B. Morse – omitting one blank.
    Our British “neighbors” might go for Samuel FB Morse, but I have never seen that in American writing.
    J.B.S. Haldane or JBS Haldane? I prefer the former.
    In the case of Mr. Morse, the F. B. equals “Findley Breece”.

    What would do with C.P.A.G. Mountbatten-Windsor ?
    Probably just argue about it because Elizabeth II was ambiguous in her royal proclamation. Look it up in the Wikipedia if you are curious.

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