8/15/2016

The Search for The Perfect Noun

Basically, you can reduce everything I have to say about nouns down to this quote:

"One pearl is better than a whole necklace of potatoes." 
-Etienne Decroux

If you're the TL;DR type, you can stop now. But if you're interested in mining language for better nouns, it's helpful to have a roadmap.

Learn nouns with Iron Maiden!
Nouns are the backbone of language. When you stop to think about it, every other part of speech serves the noun: verbs show nouns in motion, often colliding with each other. Adjectives refine nouns just as their adverb kin refine verbs. Prepositions demonstrate relationships between nouns and verbs, or nouns and other nouns, and pronouns are simply placeholders for the nouns themselves.

I'm no linguist, but it seems natural to me that the evolution of language began with the invention of the noun. The first Australopithecus (or whatever) to point to a tree and call it..."gug" (or whatever), laid the cornerstone of language.

As children, we learn language first by naming things; "mommy", "daddy", "ba-ba", etc. Everything else comes later. Even as adults, it's still possible to communicate entirely with nouns. If I point to my wife and say "remote", she'll hand me the Roku remote (okay, that's a lie. My wife would never willingly surrender the remote, but you see my point).

As a writer, nouns are the most important parts of our stories. Everything else comes second.

There are four types of nouns:

  • Persons (David Bowie, Janet Reno, the saleswoman, the mechanic)
  • Places (Scranton, McDonald's, home)
  • Things (Coca-Cola, dog, tree)
  • Ideas (Christianity, anger, priority)

Any of these types can fall into one of two categories:

  • Common nouns: Generic nouns that refer to a type of thing, or group of things (city, clock, birds). Common nouns are written in lowercase letters.
  • Proper nouns: Specific nouns that refer to one thing (Bill, Paris, Walmart). Proper nouns are capitalized.

There are also Compound nouns, which combine two or more words to achieve a more specific or refined meaning: bank teller, movie star, woodland ape.

Whether general or specific, all nouns (and all words, really), carry multiple layers of meaning. When considering a noun, you must consider its denotation and connotations.

Denotation is the dictionary-specified meaning of a word. For example a "house" may be defined as "a building for human habitation" However, there are many synonyms for "house", each with implied meanings, or Connotations. A "manor" for example, conjures up images of a massive house with columns out front, a long, tree-lined driveway, maybe even slaves in the yard. A "shack" is a "building for human habitation", but it sounds poorly constructed. A "cottage" seems like it should be located in the countryside.

These subtler meanings are the difference between the right noun and the wrong one. Not only do they conjure more specific imagery in your reader's mind, but they also carry information about the POV character who uses them. A character who says "I picked up the gun" has a different background than the character who says "I grabbed the AR-15". Make sure your noun's connotations are in line with your POV.

The best descriptions favor strong, specific nouns over unwieldy adjectives. Nouns can carry more information in less space, so a description that relies on nouns will ultimately tell you more. Takes this example:

Tom leaned on the small vertical piano, clutching a short, stubby cigarette.

Not terrible, but not terribly vivid either. Now try it this way:

Tom leaned on the spinet, clutching a Camel Wide.

We not only get a clearer picture of Tom, we also learn about whoever's eyes we are seeing him through. The POV character that gives this description knows a little about musical instruments, and is possibly a fellow smoker.

Specificity is part of what makes a strong noun, but you won't always be in a POV that lends itself to spinets and Camel Wides. Sometimes strength is just a matter of choosing a noun that's easy to digest. Style guides advise you to prefer the simple to the complex (say "spouse", not "domestic partner"), the familiar to the technical (say "Jeep", not "sport utility vehicle"), the definite to the vague (say "stove", not  "cooking device"). 

Stronger nouns make for cleaner prose. Vague nouns require more modifiers. The more modifiers you hang on your nouns, the harder it is to unpack a sentence's meaning.

Unadorned nouns are the stuff of good writing, but it's possible to rely on them too much. Corporate jargon is full of terms that pack too many nouns together. Can anyone tell me what a "Process Fitness Capability Change Manager" is? (No, seriously, what is that?) How about "Liquidation Schedule Delay Determination"?

It's rare to see language like this in fiction, but it's still useful to understand that too many nouns in a row makes your sentences opaque.

Furthermore, conceptual nouns (anything that isn't a person, place, or thing) should be used sparingly in fiction because they are impossible to visualize. A "product" isn't something I can see in my head. But I can see a "cereal box". Sometimes it's a game of inches; "an assessment" is more conceptual than "a test", though neither is particularly evocative.

Be wary of any noun ending in "tion". "I was part of a staff reduction" isn't half as clear as "I got fired". "Production" isn't as clear as "manufacturing".

While it's wise to avoid jargon in fiction, there are times when it serves a purpose. A lawyer will be predisposed to use words like "plaintiff", "habeus corpus", and "hereinbelows". A doctor will sound more authentic and authoritative if they say "DVT" (short for deep venous thrombosis) instead of "a blood clot in a large vein".

Sometimes, conceptual language can stand in for a large group of words, and there are times when that's the right call. Instead of saying "firing a bunch of people, combining departments, and breaking the manufacturing department into a separate company", it might be simpler to say "restructuring". It just depends what you're trying to achieve. Remember, writing is like coding. Think about the effect you're going for. If you're writing a conversation between a recently laid off husband and his wife, the longer example might be the way to go. If you're writing two investors discussing possible acquisitions, the shorter is probably the better.

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Sometimes the right noun comes easily, but most of the time it doesn't. Thankfully, sites like thesaurus.com make the job easier. Heck, most modern word processors have a thesaurus built in. If you don't care enough to right-click, or scan through a few search results, don't call yourself a writer. Writers care about words, and no words are more fundamental than nouns. Nouns are where good writing begins.