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Wiktionary talk:Votes/pl-2011-12/Merging proper nouns into nouns

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Language specific?Edit

Isn't this a language-specific issue? Removing the ===Proper noun=== header from English, Russian, Armenian etc. does make sense, just like ===Adjective=== and ===Adverb=== were removed from Hawaiian. The English idea of calling January and Russian proper nouns does seem strange. But there are languages where proper nouns and common nouns have different grammar. For example, Swedish or Danish names don't take the -n/-t definite suffix of common nouns. The grammatical gender of a surname depends on the sex of the name-bearer in some languages. Listing plural forms of place names, particularly rare ones, might be needless in any language, but for example Template:en-noun automatically creates it. Noun templates would have to be checked in every language. Possibly entries would have to be fixed manually in some languages. The worst possible solution is to use ===Noun=== and a context label (Proper noun), like someone suggested in the BP - that's just a more complicated way of defining proper nouns.--Makaokalani 08:40, 13 December 2011 (UTC)

FYI, {{en-noun|term|?}} is the option to omit the plural. Michael Z. 2011-12-13 15:36 z
I believe you're mistaken in assuming that names in Swedish and Danish cannot take the appended article. Given names can, at least (in addition to being used in the plural). In Swedish, I have found the following examples: “Den bästa Alberten i världen” (The best Albert in the world; singular with suffixed article) and “Bengtarna” (the Bengts; plural with suffixed article). This is also true for my native language, Icelandic, where one can easily say e.g. “Í bekknum mínum eru tveir Jónar; annar Jóninn er yngri en hinn, en báðir Jónarnir eru yngri en ég.” (In my class there are two Johns; [the] one John is younger than the other, but both the Johns are younger than me.). This usage is actually what got me thinking and made me start this whole discussion. – Krun 22:11, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
Oh, and I have already suggested that the context label (proper noun) would most often be omitted, as it seems to me that it is usually not needed for the most common types of proper noun senses. – Krun 23:26, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
That kind of use is very rare in Swedish - possibly it's more natural in Icelandic. Giving forms like Alberten or Bengten on the inflection line would be confusing. My point is that if ===Proper noun=== should be changed into ===Noun=== in every language, noun templates should be checked in every language to see if they make sense. How could a bot know if a word is a place name, and omit the plural? A lot of manual work would be needed.--Makaokalani 13:45, 16 December 2011 (UTC)
Well, such forms should naturally be omitted from the inflection line if they are unattestable, and perhaps they should be generally excluded from the inflection line (but with no comment of uncountable or no plural) for words that we don't give at least one common sense for. I would still want them in the inflection table, unless they are unattestable. If the proposal is accepted, we will need to sort out the technicalities of conversion to ===Noun===, which will presumably be done mostly by bot. At that stage we could e.g. have the bots convert uses of proper noun templates in such a way that plurals and definite forms don't appear in the inflection line. Bots, of course, can't know whether or not a noun is proper or not, but under the current scheme we have the same need for manual work; no bot knows whether {{en-proper noun}} is correctly applied in current entries. – Krun 14:30, 16 December 2011 (UTC)
I have just noticed that some editors have been marking language names in other languages such as Catalan (Category:ca:Languages) and Spanish (Category:es:Languages) as proper nouns. They are not proper nouns in those languages, they’re just common nouns. I did not check other common nouns such as months, weekdays, or nationalities, or any other languages, but I suspect this problem is widespread and would require a lot of work to clean up...unless a bot could be made to do it. —Stephen (Talk) 13:37, 19 December 2011 (UTC)
If I correctly understand Krun's comments below, and if his opinions are not unique to him, then there is a definition of "proper noun" by which those language names are proper nouns, since they identify unique entities, even if the language doesn't mark that in any way. (And personally, although I don't share his definition of "proper noun", I too am inclined to say that language-names are proper nouns in Spanish, because syntactically that's how they seem to behave; but I'm open to arguments to the contrary. I make no comment on Catalan, though, since I don't speak it.) —RuakhTALK 19:19, 19 December 2011 (UTC) edited 01:08, 20 December 2011 (UTC)
Well, the Spanish and Catalunyans have proper noun categories, and these are not in them. If every day had a different name, so that Glentock referred uniquely to March 3, 1956, and Paradore referred to Sept. 1, 1887, those would be proper nouns. A series of seven or twelve with repeating names like moon-day, sun-day, and seven-month aren’t proper nouns. We call them proper nouns in English mainly because they are capitalized, and then we can make up whatever rules we want to describe them as proper nouns, then apply those rules to the terms in other languages and we get proper nouns everywhere. But it’s arbitrary and scholars in those other languages don’t agree that they are proper nouns. In many Oriental languages, they just call them 1-day, 2-day, and 1-month, 2-month, and so on. They aren’t proper nouns, either. I think we call these terms in Latin proper nouns, but when the Spanish, French, or Italians write in Latin, they don’t call them proper nouns. —Stephen (Talk) 00:44, 20 December 2011 (UTC)
Er, sorry, I was referring only to language-names (as in your first two sentences), not to months and weekdays and nationalities (as in your third). I've edited my comment to remove the ambiguity. —RuakhTALK 01:08, 20 December 2011 (UTC)

Proper-noun-ness-mandating meaning?Edit

The current proposal says that sometimes the meaning of a sense mandates its proper-noun-ness, and that a "proper noun" sense label is then unnecessary. This seems completely backward to me. One of the main reasons to explicitly mark proper nouns is precisely to help make the sense more clear. Consider this definition:

  1. A male given name.

Obviously a proper noun, right? Except that andronym is a common noun. Keep in mind that what's obvious to a definition writer is not always obvious to a definition reader. We should be encouraging editors to cram in as many sense labels like "proper noun" as can possibly fit.

RuakhTALK 18:29, 13 December 2011 (UTC)

For better substitutability, a common noun can be defined without a leading article. A word used to name things can't be defined this way at all, but must be described or explained like an article or conjunction. But a proper name of a particular entity is a very different lexical item altogether.
Judicious use of articles helps some. Michael Z. 2011-12-13 19:55 z
andronym, n.
Male name.
Matthew, n.
A given name for a man.
Saint w:Matthew the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles of Christ and the credited author of the first Gospel of the New Testament.
—This unsigned comment was added by Mzajac (talkcontribs) at 19:55, 13 December 2011 (UTC).
WTF? Are you serious? You seriously think that the best way to distinguish proper nouns from common nouns is to use an indefinite article for proper nouns and no article for common nouns?
The funny thing is, I had considered mentioning in my original comment that definition-tweaking could help in some cases (for example, Matthew does not mean "a male given name", but rather is a male given name, so its definition is italicized), and emphasizing that it's simply too subtle to be crystal clear, and it's too much to expect editors to get these things consistently right; but your reply proves that you and I were both wrong from the get-go: what you'd consider to be a helpful definition-tweak is precisely what I'd consider to be a detrimental one, so there's no definition-tweaking that could genuinely address this issue by being helpful for all readers.
RuakhTALK 20:26, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
I didn't say this was the best anything. I was exploring ways to improve writing definitions so their meanings are more consistent and self-explanatory.
Now that you mention it, I see that some “non-gloss definitions” are italicized. Never noticed that at all. Is there a guideline about that? Maybe if it was consistently used, readers may get a hint that it means that, but sure isn't a substitute for well-written definitions. Michael Z. 2011-12-13 21:35 z
The definition of Matthew should be italicized (along with all definitions af that type: being, not meaning), that of andronym not. That being said, it is unlikely that andronym will be mistaken to be a given name, or vice versa; it doesn't even use the wording “A male given name”, although it could, theoretically. The only entries I've seen here that use that wording are, in fact, given names. As for some other definitions which should be italicized as well, I can name that of London. It does not mean the same as the phrase “the capital city of the United Kingdom”, so that if the capital is moved to Liverpool, Liverpool will not be the current London. However, in my opinion, the lack of italicization does not pose a great problem in this case, although clearly something we pedants will want to correct for the sake of consistency. – Krun 22:11, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
It's true that [[andronym]] doesn't use that wording; but my point is that what seems obvious to the person writing the definition is not necessarily what will actually be obvious to a reader who isn't already familiar with the word. If X knows that "Matthew" is a male given name and Y knows that "andronym" is a word for a male given name, then X and Y might happily give the same definition for both — X thinking the definition makes it obvious that "Matthew" is a proper noun, and Y thinking the definition makes it obvious that "andronym" is a common noun. Clearly one or both is wrong. (I actually agree with Y, myself, but you and Mzajac both seem to think that Y is the more clearly wrong of the two, so obviously my example was a good one for exemplifying my point!)
As for italicizing the definition of London — certainly not! That is a gloss definition, or is attempting to be. As I'm sure you're aware, it's London itself, not the name London, that is the capital city of the U.K. (As you can see, these things are difficult to get right. It requires a lot of thought. A lot of editors still think that the phrase "cat food" contains an adjective "cat", and this is after years of discussions of a fairly important point of English grammar. The reason, of course, is that most editors aren't reading those discussions, because they're busy writing entries, patrolling recent-changes, and so on. And one or two editors might even have lives outside of Wiktionary, which I imagine would also take up some time.)
RuakhTALK 22:45, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
You're absolutely right about the points of view of different editors and readers (andronym vs. actual given names). We really do need to work on improving definitions and clarifying them (this is a continual and endless task, of course). I do not agree with Mzajac either about the use of the indefinite article. The “a” in “a male given name” does absolutely nothing to make it obvious whether or not the definition is a gloss or not. As you rightly point out below, this practice is widespread for common nouns in this dictionary and others, and my language intuition also tells me that dropping the article changes nothing, but simply makes the defining phrase seem to lack it in some cases. As for your readers X and Y being wrong, that depends entirely on what is expected of our definitions. Most definitions are worded as glosses, as this is easier to understand and possible in most cases. Also, thanks for clarifying about London. Non-gloss definitions generally say what the word itself is and/or how it functions. The definition of London does not do this, although it still has the same sort of flaw as that of Matthew, i.e. it is not clear just from the wording “the capital city of the UK” that this is what the city is and this characteristic of it is simply being used to identify it, or that the word London directly means “the capital city of the UK”, just like capital means “the most important city”, etc. The reason nobody generally has a problem with this may be that 1) one already knows what London is and is only using the definition to ascertain that one is viewing the correct entry, translations, etc. 2) one generally doesn't expect a capitalized word to be a general word for a capital city (of the UK); also, people don't expect such a sense at all, since it doesn't seem like a particularly useful sense.
And, YES, ditto on this requiring a lot of thought. It's pretty nice to be able to have a good discussion about these things, but it really is a challenge! – Krun 14:07, 15 December 2011 (UTC)
I see what you mean: it's obvious to us that there's no common noun meaning "the capital city of the U.K." (though there is a common noun for "the head of the Roman Catholic Church", an entity that is just as unique at any given point in time). London is the same city whether or not it's the capital of the U.K., and was the same city before the U.K. existed; but the name is used metonymically in ways that only make sense for a capital city. Arguably something like "In the 1720s, London abolished British import duties […]" is using London to mean "the then-capital of the U.K." rather than in reference to the actual city of London. —RuakhTALK 19:18, 16 December 2011 (UTC)
Re: exploring ways to improve writing definitions: I applaud and encourage such efforts, but I think the specific suggestion of dropping indefinite articles from English common-noun definitions is a bad idea (for a few reasons:
  1. every English dictionary uses them, and every user of English dictionaries is used to that;
  2. we're currently very consistent about including them, whereas I don't think we can ever become consistent about excluding them;
  3. the indefinite article helps readers internalize that a sense is a noun sense, and specifically a countable common-noun sense, even if they're not confident with terms like "noun" and "common noun" and "countable".
), and I think the general implication that good definitions make up for lack of {{context|proper noun}} is misguided, since it only works to the extent that the definition-writer's notion of "this sounds like a proper-noun definition" matches that of the definition-reader. Writing definitions is hard, and we shouldn't rely on editors' doing it perfectly. It's especially hard to write a definition that's both (1) technically correct in all details and (2) instantly clear in the broad strokes. I mean, don't get me wrong, {{context|proper noun}} does not make up for weaknesses of definition, either (especially since many readers will think "proper noun" means "noun that is capitalized"); my point is simply that sense-labels and well-tuned definitions are both helpful, and we shouldn't spurn either one.
Re: italics: the guideline is really "always". I believe that our template-generated non-gloss definitions (form-ofs, given-names, etc.) are consistent about it, but — unsurprisingly — few editors seem to bother with {{non-gloss definition}} when writing non-gloss definitions by hand.
RuakhTALK 22:34, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
I think we would do well to be more consistent and get that template into more widespread use. Perhaps we should also have it go further than just italicizing. I think it would be nice (and more clear) to include a small mark of some sort for these definitions, something like e.g. a parenthesized superscript symol or abbreviation with a tooltip saying something like “this is a non-gloss definition” and a link that would lead to an appendix which explains the different types of definitions. – Krun 14:48, 15 December 2011 (UTC)
I never bother to type {{non-gloss definition}} when four dots work as well. Nothing surprising about that...--Makaokalani 13:47, 16 December 2011 (UTC)
It would be trivial (but very useful) to shorten the template name. – Krun 14:31, 16 December 2011 (UTC)
{{n-g}}. Mglovesfun (talk) 19:19, 16 December 2011 (UTC)

Inflection lines.Edit

I think the proposal needs to address inflection lines for English entries. (As Makaokalani notes above, this proposal should chiefly concern itself with English entries, anyway.) Is it really sensible to tell our readers that a word like Egypt is "uncountable"? Just as we currently support several different types of countable-and-uncountable common nouns, I think we'd want to support several different types of common-and-proper nouns. (And I imagine we'd also want to keep Category:English proper nouns, like Category:English uncountable nouns, although the current proposal says, for some reason, that we wouldn't.)

RuakhTALK 18:36, 13 December 2011 (UTC)

Perhaps the inflection line should leave off mention of tags such as uncountable, which belong to individual definitions. In cases where there is no plural form, the template could simply print (no plural). – Krun 22:11, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
But there's nearly always a plural form, even when all senses are uncountable and/or proper. For example, the noun Jessica has the well-attested plural form Jessicas, but it's surely not worth including ad-hoc common-noun senses like "A person, animal, or thing with this name" and "An aspect or instance of a person with this name" and so on. —RuakhTALK 22:51, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
Ah, but the inflection line is sense-independent, and the sense “a person, animal, or thing with this name” is a generally applicable subsense of names. I think an entry like this
Jessica (plural Jessicas)
  1. A female given name.
covers the senses displayed in the sentences “I met Jessica at a bar” and “there are two Jessicas in my class” adequatly. – Krun 10:40, 14 December 2011 (UTC)
The uncountable label really means “uncountable, mostly.” All of the usage labels work this way.
The Jessica example is a good one. Reminds us that we could compose a non-encyclopedic entry for a toponym, that won't threaten to become a gazetteer with 60 or more “senses”:
Paris (plural Parises)
  1. A place name.
(Yes, in actual practice I would mention the capital of France.) Michael Z. 2011-12-15 04:18 z
As for categorization, I fail to see the usefulness of Category:English proper nouns, etc., at least as it is. I can't really imagine needing to browse for proper nouns without being actually looking for something more specific, such as a given name or placename. Someone might perhaps want to use it for language statistics (how many proper vs. common nouns are there in a given language, etc.). Perhaps someone might want a common noun category as well (of course a vast number of nouns might need to be placed in both, depending on the community view on what it is to “be” a proper noun or common noun). – Krun 13:15, 15 December 2011 (UTC)
To be honest, I don't see the usefulness of almost any categories. But we've decided to have categories like Category:English countable nouns, and this is no different. —RuakhTALK 13:27, 15 December 2011 (UTC)
Arrowred.png
Chiming in late here, but I did want to point out that one could easily use Egypt in a countable way, such as: "We encounter many different Egypts as we view the scope of history..."
I primarily work with Japanese, where the main distinction between proper and common nouns (that I can currently think of before having my morning coffee) has to do with whether or not to capitalize the term when romanized. This might be automatable if a bot could be instructed to look for some sort of "proper" tag, be it in the POS header or in a context label.
Japanese has no gender, nor much in the way of grammatical number, so a noun, proper, pro-, or otherwise, is handled pretty much the same as any other noun, broadly speaking. The primarily distinction for Japanese is instead social context, so certain nouns are treated as crude, common, honorific, humble, or "only used when talking about/with the imperial family", and these categories *do* entail grammatical changes with regard to what verbs and verb endings to use. That said, I haven't seen any special POS headers for these, and it looks like the Wiktionary approach here has been to use context labels and/or usage notes.
In short, folding the Proper noun headers into Noun headers instead probably won't have too much impact on Japanese. However, as A-cai noted for Chinese, using context labels to mark proper noun-ness will be a bear for Japanese as well due to the need for indexing parameters, which will probably require manual editing. -- Eiríkr ÚtlendiTala við mig 17:51, 20 December 2011 (UTC)
Re: Egypts: I think everyone was aware of that to begin with — we've even had votes about how to present that information — but thanks.
Re: Japanese: Keep in mind that Japanese doesn't have to be handled the same way as English. The vote is currently worded in such a way as to cover all languages, but that only means something if the vote passes. If the vote fails, editors in individual languages will still be able to evaluate whether ===Proper noun=== is useful for those languages. (By the way, I'd be hesitant to apply the term "proper noun" in any language based solely on capitalization. Note that English capitalizes plenty of common nouns and adjectives, such as "American", that are related to proper nouns but are not themselves proper nouns. If Japanese really doesn't have a syntactic category of "proper noun", then we probably shouldn't try to make one up.)
RuakhTALK 20:52, 20 December 2011 (UTC)
I'd wondered (about proper nouns in Japanese). I'll bring that up on your talk page, since that's a side issue and so as not to clutter things here. -- Eiríkr ÚtlendiTala við mig 00:34, 21 December 2011 (UTC)

Demonyms.Edit

Obviously there's an editing error here, which I assume will be fixed:

all such senses as the one in question may be used both as proper and common nouns (as with demonyms, which are usually common when in the singular or when used with numbers, but proper when used to refer to

so I hesitate to read too much into its current state . . . but are any demonyms used as proper nouns? Obviously there are many demonyms that double as language-names, and of course the language-names are (almost?) always proper nouns, but that's a separate sense. The only demonyms that I can recall having heard described as proper nouns (other than by people who think "proper noun" means "capitalized noun") are adjectives like French and Irish that, like other adjectives, can be used with the definite article to refer to a whole group ("the meek", "the great unwashed", etc.); the only reason they get called "proper nouns" is because, insofar as they're nouns at all, they're obviously proper rather than common; but since they're actually not nouns at all, that doesn't say very much.

RuakhTALK 18:51, 13 December 2011 (UTC)

I do mean something similar to “the French”; although French here is historically an adjective, and can still be analyzed as such (although some analyze it as a noun), “the Germans” (meaning the entire German nation) is proper – just as proper as, say “the Bahamas”. Many ancient demonyms, e.g. in Latin or Old Norse, are even only attested in the plural, being used as proper nouns to describe interactions between nations and tribes. In Icelandic, demonyms have for this reason traditionally been regarded as proper nouns, often even being lemmatized in the plural in dictionaries (I have also seen this for taxonomic classes both in Icelandic and Croatian dictionaries). – Krun 22:11, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
Is "the Germans" really a proper noun, as opposed to a plural common noun? How can you tell? You say that it's just as proper as "the Bahamas", but one might also say that it's just as proper as "the enemy" or "the vertebrates". —RuakhTALK 22:57, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
(By the way, I'm really only talking about English, because, as Makaokalani says, this vote should really only be about English. Other languages here generally use English as their starting-point, but there's no reason for a vote like this one to impose itself on all languages.) —RuakhTALK 22:59, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
It is proper because it refers to the whole German nation, a unique entity; the Germans lost the war ≈ Germany lost the war. This is true in any language (provided it uses nouns/names at all), and is perhaps more philosophical than linguistic in nature. The proposed change is for all languages, not just English. I would have thought it were clear as some of my arguments specifically refer to other languages (the stuff about proper vs. common senses/usage, metonymy, etc. apply to any language). – Krun 23:23, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
To be clear, “the Germans” can also be common, e.g. “The Germans I met yesterday …”, which is similar to “the men I met yesterday …”; here, these words do not refer to the German nation or mankind, but to a countable subset (only made specific by further qualification). – Krun 23:31, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
Re: "the Germans" being proper: Just because noun phrases with "the" can be used to refer to globally to all things/people whatever that the noun applies to, that doesn't mean it makes sense to consider such phrases to be proper nouns. The whole point of proper nouns is that they're always definite, because they always refer to a unique entity. "The Germans" is only definite because of the "the". "Germans lost the war" generally means "some Germans lost the war", while "the Germans lost the war" generally means "all Germans lost the war", or (more accurately) "Germans taken as a whole lost the war"; it's just like "an enemy lost the war" vs. "the enemy lost the war", or "you can't stop tides" vs. "you can't stop the tides". There are, of course, some proper nouns that take "the", but the key point is that if you remove the "the" you either still have a proper noun ("the Sudan" ~ "Sudan", "the Ukraine" ~ "Ukraine") or else no longer have anything at all ("the Bahamas" ~ *"Bahamas").
Re: the language of the vote: Yes, it is indeed very clear that the proposed change is for all languages. Otherwise, my statement that it should only be about English would not make very much sense!
RuakhTALK 23:43, 13 December 2011 (UTC)
I agree that a noun should not necessarily be considered (primarily) proper because of such usage. I myself consider demonyms like German to be primarily common. OTOH, I'm not convinced that it is useful to decide one way or the other for such borderline cases. Explaining usage in usage notes and or appendices seems a better idea. I am also not convinced by your argument regarding the article in “the Germans”. “The Germans lost” can also just mean any previously mentioned Germans, “those Germans we were talking about”, etc. The sense “the German nation as a whole” is a specific subsence of “the Germans” which has to be deduced from semantic context, and that subsence is a proper noun sense. In Icelandic, the equivalent usage actually omits the definite article: “Þjóðverjar sigruðu Englendinga 2–1” (the Germans beat the English 1–2), where the demonyms are both nouns lacking a definite article, which would normally be needed to mark them as definite, but because they are being used in a proper sense, they don't need it. – Krun 00:50, 14 December 2011 (UTC)
I make no comment on Icelandic. It's quite possible that Þjóðverjar should be considered a proper noun. But in English, the behavior that you describe is chiefly a property of "the", not of "Germans". The same is true of many common nouns; something like "dogs are the most well-known of the canids" is perfectly grammatical, for example. (Admittedly, nouns differ in how idiomatic this is, and also in whether a singular noun, a plural noun, or a related word is preferred — "the Frenchmen" is not generally used this way, for example, because "the French" is used instead — so I'm not saying that we can't/shouldn't document this use of "Germans". But unless we're prepared to apply "proper noun" to words like "enemy" and "canids", I don't think it makes sense to apply it to "Germans", either.) —RuakhTALK 01:12, 14 December 2011 (UTC)
Actually, in your sentence, “dogs are the most well-known of the canids”, it is my opinion that both “dogs” and “canids” are being used as proper nouns; they each refer to a single unique taxonomic grouping (as a whole). This does not mean that I would want a proper noun header for dog or canid. On the contrary, one of the main reasons for my starting this vote is my concern for common noun senses being covered under proper noun and vice versa (since the noun header currently implies “common noun” because of the separate proper noun header). In other words, I think it is wrong of us to mark words explicitly one way or the other when we intend to use only one of the headers (as with dog) and cover proper noun (sub-)senses under that. We are obscuring what it really means for a noun to be proper, grammatically and philosophically, because a header one way or the other implies to the reader that the word in question is only a proper or common noun, no matter what the grammatical context. Treatment like that of dog will be quite acceptable, however, if ===Noun=== simply means “noun”, because then there is no inconsistency in having proper noun senses under the header. It is clear to me that the proper noun sense of “dogs” I mentioned is a subsense of our first sense for dog (“an animal …”), which is generally applicable to words in the plural for such groupings. Similarly, many (if not most) common nouns can generally be used as proper nouns with a definite article (I certainly agree that in this case the definite article is a requirement), as in e.g. “the clock was invented in [insert year]” (meaning the clock as a general concept) as opposed to e.g. “the clock in the living room is broken”. I don't think we need separate definition lines for these subsenses, but I do want an appendix documenting such usage and the abolition of the separate proper noun header, for the completeness and consistency of our coverage. I might add that dictionaries don't usually specifically state that a noun is proper, and this has never caused any problems for me. See e.g. [1]. – Krun 10:34, 14 December 2011 (UTC)
I see. It appears that I define "proper noun" in a way that makes it a useful category, and you define it in a way that makes it a useless one; hence my view that it's useful to label proper nouns (as I define them), and your view that it's useless to label proper nouns (as you define them). So there's probably no way to make this proposal palatable to both of us. —RuakhTALK 13:36, 14 December 2011 (UTC)

(unindent) Yes, it seems you do have a different definition in mind; what, exactly, is your definition of a proper noun? – Krun 14:27, 14 December 2011 (UTC)

I'd say that, to a first approximation — and speaking primarily of English — a proper noun is an inherently definite noun that names a specific entity. Typically, one of the following is true:
  • It always requires the definite article. (There's no *"Bahamas" or *"University of Michigan", only a "the Bahamas" and a "the University of Michigan". One exception is in attributive position: in "a University of Michigan professor", "University of Michigan" is still definite, and still names the same specific entity, but its definiteness is no longer expressed through an overt article.)
  • It never allows the definite article. (There's no *"the Molly Brown" or *"the Germany", only a "Molly Brown" and a "Germany". One exception is with an attributive adjective: we say "the unsinkable Molly Brown", not *"unsinkable Molly Brown". Another is with a stressed "the", as in "Are you THE John Madden?")
  • It has the same meaning with or without a definite article. ("Sudan" and "the Sudan" are synonymous, as are "Ohio State University" and "the Ohio State University".)
(By the way, all unasterisked example phrases and sentences in this comment, both above and below, are actual attested examples, findable via Google.)
Like all POS distinctions in English, this one is fuzzy. For example:
  • "The Alps" is constructed just like "the Andes" and "the Appalachians", but whereas I don't think anyone speaks of *"an Ande" (*"an Andis"?) or *"an Appalachian" (in this sense), some people do speak of "an Alp". Obviously, for those speakers, "Alp" is a common noun, whose definite plural would be "the Alps" (as in "one of the Alps that separate France and Italy"); does that mean that, for such speakers, or for some such speakers, "the Alps" is never a proper noun? How to tell?
  • All words in English can be used as countable common nouns, and proper nouns are no exception. In fact, they're particularly apt to do so — probably roughly as apt as adjectives and uncountable-common-nouns are. For example:
    • Sometimes two entities have the same name, and then that name can be used as a common noun referring to any entity with that name, as in "You are surprised that people are surprised about having more Muhammads than Harrys in Britain." (Note the spelling "Harrys", by the way. Proper nouns, even when pressed into service as common nouns, tend to be preserved more faithfully than regular common nouns.) This can also happen when the entities have different names, but with the same head, as in "The 38th Parallel increasingly became a political border between the two Koreas" or "Not sure where in the Carolinas you want to vacation or live?" (Notice that the semantically similar "North and South Korea" and "North and South Carolina", despite combining the heads, nonetheless do not use "Korea" and "Carolina" as common nouns; we say "North and South Korea", not *"the North and South Koreas". Proper nouns have both a semantic dimension and a syntactic one, and the syntactic dimension is language-dependent.) The same transformation can be done, by the way, with personal pronouns: in "is that a he or a she?", the usually-inherently-definite "he" is transformed into a common noun meaning "someone designated by 'he'" (and likewise for "she").
    • Sometimes a portion of a named entity, or a named entity at a specific point in time or space, is treated as a sort of "instance" of the named entity, using the name of the "super-entity" as a common-noun referring to the "sub-entity"; thus "the Germanys of Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler", or "we wanted to get to know the inner Jessica, so we lobbed a few questions at her". As before, the same can be done with personal pronouns, as in "You don't know the inner me, the real me" or "I'm REALLY in debt now, but the me of 1990-2008 is responsible for it, not the me of 1989."
    • I'm not sure if this is exactly a common-noun use, but there's a (British? old-fashioned?) construction that uses "a" with a person's name, as in "Mrs. Villiers referred to someone else, a Mr Gilbert, who happens to be a pilot for another airline" and "I'm extremely annoyed with a certain Mr. Weiner".
  • Conversely, words of various parts of speech, especially countable common nouns, can be deployed as definite-article–less proper nouns, where they effectively function as names. This happens particularly often to kinship terms, as in "I asked Dad to go check it out", but also to other words expressing relationships, as in "Candy wanted to talk to Teacher." I think there's always an intermediate step where the noun is used vocatively, as in "What do you mean, Dad?" or "Teacher, may I be excused?", but I'm not sure. (Obviously I'm not counting the case where an existing word really is a name, like with the girls'-names "Summer" and "Heather", the pets'-names "Pumpkin" and "Snowflake", and the nicknames "Skinny" and "Red".)
  • Similarly, when a common noun functions as the head of a definite-article–using proper noun, sometimes the common noun itself will be used alone (aside from the definite article), with the rest of the name being implied; hence "the University", "the Agency", and so on. These retain some aspects of proper-noun-itude (e.g. in that the FBI is only "the Bureau", never "the Agency"), but lose others (e.g. in that the FBI can also be "this Bureau").
  • Some common nouns can be used in the adverbial construction "[prep] [noun]", without the definite article, but still seeming to be semantically definite; "I saw him at school" seems to mean something closer to "I saw him at the school" than to "I saw him at a school". A few don't even require the preposition, as in "she went home" or "are you home?". In this respect they resemble words like "Monday" ("I'll see you (on) Monday") that are often considered proper nouns, and there may not be a principled way to distinguish.
But again, these sorts of fuzzinesses occur in all POS distinctions in English. The boundary between common nouns and proper nouns is not much fuzzier than, say, the boundary between adjectives and nouns, or that between adjectives and prepositions.
RuakhTALK 19:04, 14 December 2011 (UTC)
But it is fuzzier. In the case of demonyms, and some other words, the boundary is sometimes indefinable.
Take the variable nature of properness, mix in some metonymy and whatever, and you get a continuum of references to an entire people, or a representative group of the people, right through to individual members of the group: the Germans are very precise, the Germans lost the war, the Germans were forced across the Rhine, the Germans export luxury cars, the Germans designed the Volkswagen, the Germans left the table at the summit, the Germans slept through breakfast (I made these up. Can you tell me which are examples of proper nouns and which are not?). Often even the speaker hasn't even determined whether he is using a proper noun or common noun.
First Nations, in Canada, is a proper collective demonym referring to Canadian Indians, an attributive noun indicating Indian heritage, or a common plural noun referring to Indian bands, settlements, or reserves. Sometimes it's two or three of these simultaneously.
You can indicate that many words are usually proper or common nouns, and it can be understood that they may be used the other way. But some words are so changeable or indeterminate that you probably shouldn't indicate this. Michael Z. 2011-12-15 00:40 z
Obviously you didn't read a single word I wrote. I don't say that because you continue to disagree with me — I'd like to believe that I'm magically persuasive, and that no one could resist my all-compelling arguments, but sadly, I know that's not true — but because my comments clearly express my own opinion, and your comment is clearly unaware that I hold that opinion. So, for the last time: Every single one of your examples is a common noun. There is absolutely no value in ever considering any of those as a proper noun, because the entirety of their syntax and semantics is adequately explained by viewing them all as common nouns. The only way you can possibly expect me to accept that those examples are "fuzzy", and that they militate for a non-distinction between common nouns and proper nouns, is if you also expect me to accept that "cat food" is "fuzzy" because the speaker may not have decided whether "cat" is an adjective or a noun, and that it militates for a non-distinction between nouns and adjectives. —RuakhTALK 04:40, 15 December 2011 (UTC)
Well, I guess I'm just an idiot and expressing your presumptions isn't arrogant at all. Michael Z. 2011-12-15 15:53 z
Not arrogant, just annoyed. I found your comment very obnoxious. This whole discussion was about whether something like "the Germans" is a proper noun when it refers to the entire German people/country/government/etc., and I explained that I felt that it wasn't and why I felt that it wasn't. (In particular, see my comment that begins "Re: 'the Germans' being proper".) Krun then asked me to clarify what I meant by "proper noun", and I put a lot of effort into explaining my point of view, acknowledging its limitations, and documenting those limitations with real examples. Now, I'm still open, of course, to the possibility that "the Germans" actually should be considered a proper noun in some uses, and if you had presented an argument along those lines, I'd have been all ears. Instead, you dismissed half of what I wrote with an unsupported claim, simply presupposing that "the Germans" is sometimes a proper noun and presupposing that the only discussion is over when that's the case. In other words, you took for granted that I shared a certain position even after I'd explicitly rejected it, and then you used that position to dismiss the small portion of my comment that you hadn't simply ignored. Furthermore — at this point I'm sure I should have assumed good faith — but your bit of "I made these up" really seemed like you were mocking me for finding real examples. Since I'd put a lot of effort into finding those examples, I found that really offensive. —RuakhTALK 18:25, 15 December 2011 (UTC)

In French, demonyms are often considered as (capitalized) common nouns. Alpes is a proper noun, but the common noun alpe also exists, with a related meaning. ANd the use of the article or not has nothing to do with the fact that it's a common noun or a proper noun. Language names, days and months are never considered as proper nouns. The most popular French dictionary is the Petit Larousse, and it includes a proper nouns part. Nouns mentioned in this part include companies and organizations, persons or famous families, placenames, famous works (and some demonyms too, such as Inuits). Not surnames or first names. This is more or less what is considered as proper nouns in French (surnames and first names may be considered as proper nouns but they are somewhat special). But the tradition differs between languages. I would change the proposal to The POS should be Proper nouns only in two cases: 1. when the language considers the noun as a proper noun or 2. when there is no proper noun/common noun distinction in the language, and this is a place, person or organization name of a kind always considered as a proper noun in languages where the distinction exists. Lmaltier 08:46, 1 January 2012 (UTC)

By the way, I do not think that "the Germans" is a proper noun. Neither do I think that "the computer" as referring to the invention rather than to any particular physical object that is a computers is a proper noun. Singularity of reference does not guarantee that an expression is a proper noun. All definite expressions ("the cat over there", "the third planet of the Solar System") show singularity of reference, but that makes them neither proper nouns nor proper names. --Dan Polansky 13:31, 7 January 2012 (UTC)