5 Points on Proper Usage for Proper Nouns
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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