The two basic types of English nouns point to two basically different types of knowledge. Here’s what each can teach us about how to know each other.
Your second-grade teacher likely taught you that English nouns come in two basic varieties: proper nouns, which name particular people, places, and organizations; and common nouns, which pick out classes of objects rather than particulars. She probably didn’t mention that these two types of nouns point toward two different types of knowledge. But I will. And I’ll use our dog Bo (pictured above as a puppy) to explain.
My Uncommon Companion
First, note that I just described my favorite scruffy yellow companion with both a proper noun (Bo) and a common one (dog). What is the function of each?
Simply put, the proper noun (Bo) names this particular critter, the one and only Bo Sampson, who lives for chasing tennis balls and stealing snuggle time on the sofa. Meanwhile, the common noun (dog) tells us what type of critter Bo is.
Now note that, if you didn’t already know Bo, the common noun “dog” would tell you a lot more about him than his name does. Think about it: if we were strangers, which of the following sentences would give you a better understanding of my circumstances?
“I have a Bo.”
“I have a dog.”
The former could be talking about anything from a ribbon to a boyfriend–not to mention anything that someone might name. The latter refers to a well-understood category of critter.
But even though “dog” says more than “Bo,” only the latter names the one and only fellow we know. And to really know Bo, I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s not enough just to know “dog.” You have to know how our particular furry friend fits, and fails to fit, with the common conception of canines. You have to know that he has a goofy run and a silly fear of nail clippers, that he’s prone to whining for ear rubs and eating socks, that he once caught a squirrel but only flicked it with his nose. “Dog” is part of what defines Bo, for sure, but it isn’t the full picture.
Common Nouns Are Always Improper
So it is with all common nouns. In naming groups of things, they focus our attention on what those things have in common–on the attributes that define them as a group. But they do this precisely by ignoring the attributes that make each thing unique. Common nouns are thus a little rude–improper by nature, we might say–and the very structure of our language seems to recognize this shortcoming.
To know something in the way you and I know Bo, and not just “dog,” you have to treat it in its full and proper uniqueness, as a one-of-a-kind thing and not just one thing of its kind. You have to give it its own name.
Knowing on a First-Name Basis
This is worth bearing in mind every single time you see a common noun that refers to other people. Every label we use to describe each other–whether “blacks,” “gays,” “whites,” “straights,” “cops,” “teachers,” “millennials,” “boomers,” “conservatives,” “progressives,” or whatever else–covers over immense complexity. Each defines a group by focusing only on some common trait, and precisely by ignoring what’s unique about its members. Each is more like “dog” than like “Bo.”
We need such common nouns to make sense of each other and our world. But we should never forget that they are only ever partial descriptions of us. More importantly, we should never forget that they are only ever partial descriptions of them–of the people on the other side of the argument, whichever side of the argument we’re on.
We are all individual people. And none of us likes to be treated as merely common, as defined by a particular label. We prefer to be known on a first-name basis and called by our proper nouns. That’s part of what we “humans” have in common.
I love you (both in common and uniquely),