The Power of Proper Nouns

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Kamala Harris! The Toronto Raptors! Blockbuster! Brett Michaels! Ecuador! Flight of the Conchords! Fortnite!

What am I doing? Beyond abusing the crap out of my exclamation point key, I’m showing off the power of the proper noun.

I’m sure you remember that grade school lesson on the distinction between common and proper nouns. Proper nouns refer to specific examples of things. It the difference between Oreos and cookies, Atlanta and a city, or Tupac and a rapper.

But there’s more to know about proper nouns than they might’ve taught you. They’re actually power nouns.

These names create an effect. They go places their common noun counterparts can’t go. They breathe life into the story you’re telling and that’s why they’re so valuable.

Proper nouns bring a story to life

The first power that these proper nouns hold is their ability to enhance the aesthetic of the story you’re telling.

Allow me to demonstrate with a passage from Matt Haug’s novel, How To Stop Time.

“I have a friend request on Facebook. It is her. Camille Guerin. I accept the request. Then- as Hendrich keeps talking - I find myself looking at her wall. She updates in a mixture of French and English and emoji. She quotes Maya Angelou and Françoise Sagan and Michelle Obama and JFK and Michel Foucalt. She has a friend in France who is raising money for Alzheimer’s and she links to his donation page.”

Compare this to the same passage stripped of its proper nouns:

“I have a friend request online. It is her. My old friend. I accept the request. Then- as he keeps talking - I find myself looking at her wall. She updates in a mixture of languages. She quotes poets and dignitaries and philosophers. She has a friend abroad who is raising money for a cure and she links to his donation page.”

Notice how the latter version feels way more detached? Specific references plant our writing in space and time.

Proper nouns can be used strategically to evoke emotion

Recall that random string of proper nouns I started this post with?

Maybe some of those words made you picture things in your mind. Those throwback purple Raptors jerseys or the shape of Ecuador on a map. Maybe Blockbuster evokes a sense of nostalgia while Kamala Harris’ name comes with a bit of stress associated with the next election season.

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So much of our brain’s activity is connected to making associations with things we’re familiar with. If you mention Martin Luther King, your audience will be more ready for you to make a point about morality and justice. Mention Nickelodeon, and your audience is primed for something more playful. You can use these associations to help build an emotional arc in your storytelling, writing, and speaking.

Proper nouns help you bond with your audience

While it was on the air, Psych was one of my favorite shows. Every episode of the detective comedy was packed full of pop culture references, and you were lucky if you understood a third of them. They name dropped characters from John Hughes movies, forgotten baseball players from the mid-nineties, junk food you haven’t thought about for a decade, and beyond.

Their references were deep and specific; and of course that means a good chunk of the audience won’t get it. They made up for it by dropping so many of them. And the payoff was that there was always a surge of excitement when you did get it.

When your favorite show mentions in passing your favorite childhood baseball player who retired a long time ago, it triggers a sense of recognition and the positive feelings associated with familiarity. It also sends a significant message: this show is for you.

You don’t have to be a show to use proper nouns to create a more intimate rapport with your audience. You don’t even need to be lighthearted to do this. While pop culture references might seem inappropriate for an organization that does serious work in preventing child abuse, there may be quotes by Fred Rogers or stories from Malala Yousefzai that work in your favor.

So here’s the action step: make proper noun use part of your editing process. When reviewing a piece of copy, ask if any of the nouns could be replaced by something more concrete. That might just add a lot more strength to your story.

Philippe Lazaro