Being a Better Writer: The Problem With Proper Nouns in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Hello writers, and welcome back to another installment of Being a Better Writer, where today we’re going to discuss something that’s actually quite topical! So topical, in fact, that this discussion wasn’t even on Topic List #20. Instead, it was prompted over this last week by some real-life work and discussion.

It’s also a topic that is going to directly reference via-link someone else’s writings on the subject. But with that, I feel we need to move into an explanation directly.

See, the genesis of this post comes from my editing on Starforge. This titan of a book is now in the Beta phase, which means looking for typos, misspelled words, misplaced quotation marks, and all that jazz. However, it also means going through and ensuring proper capitalization of proper nouns. At which point, I ran into a bit of a conundrum. Said conundrum led me to Google, which in turn pointed me to this post from 2009 concerning a similar issue in Fantasy writing—though note that it does address Science Fiction as well.

Anyway, what is this conundrum? Well, before we dive into it directly, I have a sort of pop quiz for you. You can do it in your head, but if you’re really determined you can bring out a pen and pencil and do the classic grade-school exercise. It’ll only take a moment either way, but here we go. Correctly capitalize the following sentence:

The terran vehicle rolled up the hill, backed by dozens of terran marines.

That’s it. Got it? Placed those capital letters where they belong? Okay, check out the answers after the break.

Okay, are you ready to see that sentence properly capitalized, so that you can check your work? Well, here we go! The correct capitalization is—

The Terran vehicle rolled up the hill, backed by dozens of Terran Marines.

Well … almost. See, that’s correct, but so is—

The Terran vehicle rolled up the hill, backed by dozens of terran marines.

—as well as—

The terran vehicle rolled up the hill, backed by dozens of Terran marines.

—and if that isn’t already confusing to you, here’s the real kicker. It’s also correct in the original form as well.

Confused? Well, that’s why I ended up doing a quick little internet search last week while editing on Starforge. See, each of those sentences is “correct” without any additional context given, and it comes down to a weird quick of English that a lot of us, when it comes to Fantasy and Sci-Fi, just tend to not so much ignore as collectively sidestep.

Okay, I can already feel the oozing displeasure and annoyance of some readers traveling through my monitor from the future, clenching their fists and gritting their teeth and saying “Yes, but—!” to my declaration above, ready to righteously decree that I’ve clearly gone insane, because how can all four of those sentences be correct?

Because English is weird, okay? Look, let me give you all a very straightforward example with the following sentence: Bob was a human.

Seems pretty simple, right? It’s not a complicated sentence. We can do more like that. Sam was a human. Ibrahim is a human. Maria is a Spaniard.

Wait. What? What happened with Maria there?

Remember above, when I said that “English is weird?” Well, this is one of if its weird little inconsistencies that in general usage doesn’t run into many issues, but when Fantasy or Sci-Fi rears its head creates a conundrum.

See, in English we don’t capitalize the names of a species. If I want to talk about a dog in sentence, as I have just done, I don’t capitalize it. Species names are lower-case. The same applies to sapient species of which on Earth we only know of the one, the human (now, I will note here that we do capitalize the first part of the proper scientific name, Homo sapiens, but that’s not often used in parlance).

With me so far? Good. We don’t capitalize species names, like “human” or “cat.”

But we do capitalize the names of cultures and peoples. So while “human” doesn’t get the capital letter, something like “Spaniard” or “African” does because it refers to specific culture or place. Some of you are already nodding along with this because you’ve realized where this is going, and the odd grey-area that Fantasy/Sci-Fi finds itself in.

See, going back to that example sentence and all its forms, all of them could be correct. I used the Sci-Fi slang for “human” of “terran” to make the point more visible, but now that we’ve reached this point, let’s swap it out for “human” and consider that our viewpoint may not be. Therefore, capitalizing the sentence like this is grammatically correct:

The human vehicle rolled up the hill, backed by dozens of human marines.

But … what if this vehicle, and these marines, are from the “Human Commonwealth,” and the context is referring to that social/cultural organization (and as now noted in a comment below, their specific organization of marines as well)? Well, then the above is incorrect, and the proper capitalization should instead be one of our other offerings:

The Human vehicle rolled up the hill, backed by dozens of Human Marines.

Unfortunately, as many of you are now putting together, this can get messier still. What if the vehicle is a commonly-seen Human Commonwealth tank, but the marines are just a non-specific cluster of marines not identified by anything other than their being humans? Well, then we have one of our other examples:

The Human vehicle rolled up the hill, backed by dozens of human marines.

Now, while you might say that “Hey, maybe that author shouldn’t have named their empire the ‘Human Commonwealth!'” or “Maybe they should have made the common name for that empire the Commonwealth, not the Humans,” often writing isn’t quite so simple, nor is real-life, where we have “Spanish humans” and “Spaniards” both being something that someone could actually say, just doesn’t because most of us don’t go around saying “Hello fellow humans!”

But when we bring additional sapient species into things? Well … that throws a colossally-sized monkey wrench into things. Or maybe for the context of this paragraph it’s a “Monkey wrench,” referring to a group of long-armed aliens whose empire name is phonetically is similar to the word “monkey” and therefore …

You get the joke I was going for there. No need to explain it.

Okay, so you see the basis of the problem here. We’ve built a language that’s kind of reliant on there only being one sapient species in the mix to be broadly identified. We don’t say “human” with an upper-case letter because we acknowledge that there’s a ton of individual cultures, groups, etc, all inside that designation.

But … what if you’re not a human? What if you’re an alien from a species known as the “klork” and you’re referring to human social values, society, and culture as a collective? Well … then wouldn’t it be “Human” with that capital letter at the start?

Yes. And that’s where Fantasy and Sci-Fi get, shall we say … screwy. Because by our own rules and logic, yes, that alien should capitalize “Human” when referring to “Human culture” in that way. Just as someone on Earth might say “Oh, he’s a Spaniard” when referring to someone else, “She’s a Human” is a correct capitalization in the same context.

Oh dear. Yeah. This creates a titanic headache when it comes to editing and preparing your Sci-Fi or Fantasy novel for the public. Because suddenly we have a situation our language isn’t really ready for, because it wasn’t made for multiple sapient species and cultures, to say nothing of poor naming conventions (very real, mind), like “Human Commonwealth” or “The Dominion of Man.”

This same rule, by the way, cuts in all directions. Is that an Elven plate? Was it made by an elf? Is that music Dwarvish? Or is it just “music performed by a dwarf?” Is that Draconic coinage?

What sort of madness have we brought upon ourselves?

See, where this becomes a “major problem” is when you run into the above. Which is what happened to me last week with the Beta editing for Starforge. In Starforge there is a name given to both a species and to an alien culture, and I hit a mental roadblock when I realized that this meant if I kept to the rules of English, most instances of this word would be capitalized … but not all. And from unfortunate experience, I knew how that would go when put into the hands of the public.

“This book is full of typos!” persnickety reviewers would proclaim, despite not being correct in the slightest (I’ve run afoul of this before regarding uncommon words like “materiel”). Upon realizing this, I turned to Google, which led me to the post I linked above, and then … Well, now you’re caught up.

Save in one regard: What I chose to do in light of this. And the ultimate question of what you should do.

The “correct” thing to do would be to check the context of each statement—Is the text referring to the species or the people here?—and either capitalize or leave uncapitalized as the rules request. But … that’s not what I did. And it doesn’t have to be what you do either.

Many times before on Being a Better Writer we’ve talked about how part of learning to write well is knowing when to break the rules of English. For example, there’s an entire post on the difference between a character replying to a question with the proper, grammatically correct “No, thanks,” and the improper but incredibly useful “No thanks.”

In each of these discussions, one thing that’s either been alluded to or directly stated is the concept of consistency. As in, you can break a rule deliberately, such as turning a word into a proper noun, as long as you do it consistently. Some people will still miss it or make a fuss to be pedantic, but the average reader will go “Well, I know that isn’t normally the rule, but they’re clearly doing something with it here and it’s consistently used in this fashion through the book.”

Sometimes, consistency is more important that following the “rules” of English. Especially when it’s a rule that runs into an edge-case it was never designed or intended for, that of multiple sapient species interacting with one another.

Perhaps someday that will change. Maybe we’ll finally make contact or uplift or something, but it’ll prompt those that “oversee” the English language and those that use it to create a more varied approach to this issue.

But until then, each of us as writers is going to have to make a choice on how to enforce this rule, or whether to go for “consistency” instead. And myself … I chose consistency. Yes, every instance of this alien species in the book is capitalized, even when the character is referring to them as a species, not as a culture—rare though that may be.

I’m far from the only author to have done so. Comments on the other post I found discussing this delved into books that folks could remember where every instance of “Orc” or “Elf” was capitalized … even when it didn’t make sense. Some pointed out species created specifically for settings that were unique to it that were still capitalized in every usage.

Now, I’m not saying that this is the “solution.” Ultimately, the decision on how to handle proper nouns and their inconsistencies in a setting with more than one sapient species is yours, the writers. Or, I guess if you’re Trad Pub, your editor’s. I was, for a moment, entirely tempted to properly leave some instances of the species name in Starforge lowercase, because that was the correct answer, and just take the lumps of “Ooh, this book has so many typos and needs an editor” just as a way to, as I have with some people over words like “materiel,” explain that it was in fact correct and the proper capitalization of the word under the odd edge-case rules of English.

But at the same time, I didn’t want to do that. I chose instead to fall back on a pretty common Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention: Capitalize all of it, and make it easier for the reader. Because ultimately, that consistency will serve most readers better than the few who know the edge-case and get annoyed by my deliberate sidestepping of the issue.

But that choice is yours. As long as you make sure you’re consistent, you can do a number of things, from the straightforward “We’ll just capitalize all of these” to the less common, such as ‘Let me invent some new rules for English for this book and stick that in the appendix.”

So what, then, is the takeaway from today’s post? Is there an answer?

Well … no. Not outside of “be consistent.” Today’s post is more meant to draw your attention to something that even after several books you may have very well never considered. Again, this is an edge-case in English. It just happens to be one that a good portion of Sci-Fi and Fantasy points itself at head-on and then says “‘”Watch this!” while having no idea of the curb they’re about to jump.

This isn’t something most will need to worry about right away. And some may never have to worry about it.

But … if you are going to be one of those authors that creates a setting where humans live aside other sapients, this will be something you’ll need to think about when the time comes to edit your story. Or maybe even before, during the writing, if you want to establish your own consistent rules to follow.

As I’ve said, there’s no hard “answer” to be found with this post. It’s one of the rare BaBW that just serves to bring the matter to your attention, to give you this information. From there, it’s your call what you wish to do with it.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: The Problem With Proper Nouns in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

    • Yeah, a few slipped through the net.

      As far as “marines” goes … that’s another case where the topic in hand is directly applicable, and in fact could have been the entire subject of the post. See, “Marines” in American English is ONLY capitalized if you’re referring to, depending on who you ask, an official, specific nation’s marine corps OR to some, ONLY if referring to the US Marine Corps.

      Yes, this is one of those “rules” where depending on what part of the world you’re in that speaks English, the rule changes (like how to spell grey/gray).

      Technically, by rules of English and who you talk to, capitalizing ANY of those instances is incorrect, because it’s a Sci-Fi marine group, therefore not a real marine group, and therefore should not be capitalized out of deference to existing marines.

      OR, we could follow rough rules of a lot of other proper nouns where military is concerned, and capitalize JUST the instances where it is used to direct a specific nation’s compliment of marines. Again though, this gets questionable with context is Sci-Fi. To go from the example, with the “Terran marines” bit, that could be correct either way. After all, we say “Native American soldiers.” If “marines” have become a recognized ground component of multiple militaries in our future, than “Terran marines” just gives specific focus to the first part of that designation, not the second. They’re marines, but they’re TERRAN marines.

      At the same time, we can make it “Terran Marines” and directly refer to that nation’s specific corps.

      Like with names, this is one giant grey area in Fantasy/Sci-Fi because the rules we’ve established now don’t account for all the idiosyncrasies and edge cases the future might bring.


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