RedPen Editing
Naming names

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Before we think about proper nouns and pronouns as applied to people in particular, here’s a reminder about nouns.

Nouns are words that name things such as people or places. There are four types of noun.

  • Concrete nouns name physical things: (the) television, (a) chair, (an) apple.
  • Proper nouns name people, places or institutions and always have a capital letter: Anne, Salcombe, Red Pen.
  • Collective nouns name a group of animals, people or things: herd (of elephants), team (of hockey players). For more examples, click here.
  • Abstract nouns name things which cannot be sensed through any of the five senses – they are deduced: bravery, intelligence, curiosity, dedication.

If we focus on proper nouns for people, these are simply their names: Jim, Jane, Doctor Jekyll, Mr Hyde.

The gender of a person is usually obvious from the name (but not always …). The pronouns used in place of a proper noun do reveal the gender of the person.

  • He crossed the road; his train was late; the newspaper was not his; the guard spoke to him.
  • She sat down; her phone rang; the phone was hers; the phone call was for her.

When editing (when writing even!) you need to decide at what point in your text you’ll first refer to the person by name, and when to use a pronoun instead of the proper noun.

Always using the proper name would make for a tedious read:

As soon as Jane sat down in Jane’s favourite armchair,
Jane’s phone rang. Jane answered the call; it was Jane’s mother.

As a rule of thumb, I’d recommend the first proper noun is kept, but then replace the next two or three with pronouns.

As soon as Jane sat down in her favourite armchair,
her phone rang. Jane answered the call; it was her mother.

If it’s not vitally important that the phone belongs to Jane, ‘her phone’ could be rephrased as ‘the phone’ – and this tactic avoids the repeated use of ‘her’. Depending on how important Jane’s mother is, and to avoid again the repetition of ‘her’, the  text could be edited to read as follows.

As soon as Jane sat down in her favourite armchair,
the phone rang. She answered the call; it was Jane’s mother.

If it doesn’t suit you to do so, you don’t have to reveal the name of your character immediately, or indeed the gender. This extract is written in the first person.

I had no idea who she was.

We looked at each other for less than a heartbeat. Her smile, I sensed, seemed to show a warmth of recognition, while mine was cool and polite, born from uncertainty. When we broke eye contact, I hid under my umbrella. I tried to keep my gaze on the coffin, but now and again I chanced a glance her way. Twice she caught and held my glances. The quick smiles lit a flame and I looked away, clearing my throat, forcing myself to look down at the open grave.

The priest droned on, the Gregorian chant bouncing off the raindrops, the echoes reverberating through the marble of the Greek area of the West Norward cemetery like a distant choir. Knowing nothing much about the differences of Christian sects, I had asked the priest earlier how a Greek Orthodox could officiate at the burial of a Russian Orthodox. He had replied, “God does not make distinctions between Russian and Greek, so why should I?”

She and I were the only mourners. I had not been to the service at the Greek Orthodox church in Moscow Road, so I had been here waiting and had watched her walk to the graveside behind the paid bearers. Her straight nose and slim elegance made her look more Persian than Arab, but she had the same large dark eyes, heavy eyebrows, full cheeks and generous lips, more olive skinned, definitely not peaches and cream, more like white chocolate with a hint of pistachios, probably black hair under the black hat.

QUESTION: What gender is the narrator?

QUESTION: Whatever gender you decide, how could you indicate to the reader – in a subtle way –  the gender of the narrator?