When is a noun a proper noun?
June 6, 2008 5:45 PM   Subscribe

English grammar filter: can a common noun act as a proper noun if the thing being referred to exists within a shared context? Please help to settle a dispute between my girlfriend and I.

In the area where we live, there is a farmer's market that opens on the weekend - the typical market of its sort, it sells fresh fruit, vegetables, and the like. The dispute is in how we should refer to it. My girlfriend says, "Let's go to Farmer's Market." I claim that this is incorrect - "farmer's market" is not a proper noun, and requires an article ("a", "the", "that") in order to be used in a sentence. It's a good natured argument, but we've wound ourselves in circles.

On the market's website, you can see it in context: "Union Square Main Streets with The City of Somerville and The Federation of Massachusetts Farmers’ Markets brings the Union Square Farmers Market each Saturday throughout the summer and early autumn. " (Emphasis mine.) Her position is that "farmer's market" is to be treated as a proper noun, because we share an understanding of which market she is referring to. Thus, you could say, "Let's go to Farmer's Market". She likens it to saying, "Let's go to Walmart." All attempts to convince each other have failed, and at so we turn to you for help!

Who is correct?
posted by ellF to Writing & Language (28 answers total)
Your girlfriend's usage is certainly unusual.

It should probably be "farmers' market". Plural possessive.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:54 PM on June 6, 2008

You both know which farmers' market she is referring to, but she shouldn't refer to it as a proper noun because she isn't calling it by its proper name. In her analogy, it would be like she was saying "Let's go to Store" because you both knew she meant Walmart. If she wants to use it her way and be nit-picky correct, she'll need to say "the Union Square Farmers' Market."
posted by Polychrome at 6:03 PM on June 6, 2008

Proper nouns aren't made proper nouns because the people using them are intimately familiar with what they describe. Otherwise I'd call the dog my girlfriend and I have "Dog." If we had Dog, that is.

Wait, is your girlfriend German?

If the farmer's market were named Farmer's Market, then she'd be right, because that would be its name. Right now she's just conjuring grammar out of thin air.
posted by m0nm0n at 6:06 PM on June 6, 2008

1. Whether it's proper or not makes no difference about whether requires an article. Some proper nouns do, some proper nouns don't. The Beatles is proper, but you can't just call them Beatles.

Farmers markets generally do require the definitive article, which means "the." Whether it's the farmers market or the Union Square Farmers Market, the "the" is there either way.

2. mr_robato is referring to a somewhat different, but hotly contested, copy-editing question: whether the proper construction is "farmers' market" or "farmers market." The Associated Press goes with the latter, saying that an apostrophe isn't required in a situation where something is "by or for" something else. (For example: a kids carnival. It's for kids, therefore it's not a "kids' carnival"; likewise a farmers market is by farmers, therefore it doesn't require an apostrophe.) I work at a magazine where our style is to use "farmers' market," implying that the market belongs to the farmers. Either can be correct; personally I like "farmers market," which is cleaner.

3. If you love your girlfriend, you will let this go and consider it an endearing quirk. Being right here will win you no love.
posted by purpleclover at 6:17 PM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My understanding of articles in English (a/an and the) is this, but note the caveat at the end:

- Let's go to the Farmer's Market. means that you and I both know which one we're talking about, because we've been there before, or because there's only one, so there's no room for confusion. You will not ask "which one?" after someone says this to you, because they assume you already know which one they're talking about (though you well may not). The is the definite article: what we are talking about is defined.

- Let's go to a farmer's market. means we'd like to do this, but perhaps we're not sure if one's around, or perhaps we're looking for one in the area, or we have many to choose from. Which market is either unknown or unimportant. A/an is the indefinite article: what we're talking about is undefined.

There are times we don't use articles at all - when we're discussing places that are institutions, for example: I'm still in [no article] school doesn't only mean you're inside a building, but can also mean that you're still a student.

Caveat: your girlfriend is right is she has to carry all the veggies back to the car. You are right if she's carrying a bunch of asparagus and you've got a watermelon under each arm.
posted by mdonley at 6:18 PM on June 6, 2008

it's not a proper noun, therefore it takes an article.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:32 PM on June 6, 2008

Response by poster: Drat, beagle - well spotted. I definitely meant "me" in that sentence. :)
posted by ellF at 6:32 PM on June 6, 2008

If the farmer's market were named Farmer's Market, then she'd be right, because that would be its name. Right now she's just conjuring grammar out of thin air.

But who says that it isn't named "Farmer's Market," at least with respect to her and her boyfriend?

How things come to be named is actually quite an interesting question, and it's not merely an issue of grammar.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 6:34 PM on June 6, 2008

I have a Farmers Furniture store by my house. It has no article because that's the name of the people who made it. There's a store by my school called Book rack. If I say "Let's go to Bookrack" I'm saying to go to the store. If I say "Let's go to the book rack" then I'm saying we should go to a book rack.

All of this just serves as a few examples of how the same basic name can be taken a few different ways based on context. If the name of the market really is Farmers/Farmers' Market then she's right. If the word farmer is just used as an adjective to describe what kind of market it is, then you're right.

But in the end, it doesn't really matter unless you're giving directions to someone who wouldn't turn at the farmer's market because they were looking for something literally named Farmer's Market.
posted by theichibun at 6:37 PM on June 6, 2008

i would say that, so long as she's using "Farmers [Farmer's, Farmers', whatever] Market" as shorthand for "Union Square Farmers Market," then the capitalization can remain and still be correct.

Kind of as if one were to write "The White Rose of Athens is a song by Nana Mouskouri. White Rose is based on a melody by Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis..." Though you drop the article and don't write out the full title, the capitalization remains.

Maybe a better example would be something like "Pete's Pizza Place;" one might say "let's go to Pizza Place" or "let's go to the pizza place."
posted by wreckingball at 6:55 PM on June 6, 2008

"Her position is that "farmer's market" is to be treated as a proper noun, because we share an understanding of which market she is referring to."

By her logic she could also say "Let Us take Car to Farmers Market and buy Pastry for Meal with Them.* Does this look like a grammatical sentence?

*(Because you and her both know that you have only one car and that you need a desert for dinner with your parents later that evening.)

From Merriam-Webster's " : a noun that designates a particular being or thing, does not take a limiting modifier, and is usually capitalized in English —called also proper name." Your girlfriend seems to be focusing on the first part of this definition, the bit about designating a particular place. But notice that last part, proper nouns are names. The only way that her usage makes sense is if she considers "Farmers' Market" to be a name. If so, she's in the clear (and her Walmart analogy makes sense). The point being that merely knowing which farmers' market she is talking about isn't enough. (Also, if one thinks of all of the capitalized words as names in my sample sentence, then it's actually perfectly fine.)

Of course, now you can argue about how naming works. If you solve that problem, please put me in a footnote. It would be nice to see my name in one of the most famous essays ever written.
posted by oddman at 7:02 PM on June 6, 2008

Building off of Mr. President's idea, here is a thought experiment for you:

There are two Chinese food places in town. One is named China Panda and the other is Panda Sun. You and your girlfriend really like the food at China Panda and hate the food at Panda Sun, but China Panda is cheaper and closer. Because of the similar names, you can never remember which one is named what. As a result, you start to refer to them as "the good Chinese food place" and "the close Chinese food place". Eventually, these phrases become whittled down to "Good Chinese" and "Close Chinese". Aren't "Good Chinese" and "Close Chinese" now proper nouns for those restaurants, even though they are not the names the proprietors have chosen?
posted by Rock Steady at 7:28 PM on June 6, 2008

But, aren't "Let's go to mass," or "Let's go to Bible study," or "Let's go to group therapy," (similarly, "marriage counseling," "English class, etc.) similar constructions that are generally regarded as correct? Can't an article sometimes be omitted and merely implied instead?
posted by tyllwin at 7:30 PM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Related observation: Usually, when you use a title as a substantive, you have to put an article with it: The president, the doctor, the bishop. But occasionally I hear a title converted into a name and used without an article: "I'll go ask Bishop what he thinks." Limitations of the data: Only observed with "Bishop," in Utah, among young Mormons who have the same bishop, from speakers who grew up within the Mormon Corridor, and even then it's rare. But it sounds like the same naming thing your girlfriend is doing.

Oh, hey, about that "does not take a limiting modifier": "Union Square" is a modifier, and it limits the phrase's reference, since there are certainly other farmers' markets in the world. So I'd say that excludes it from proper nounhood right there, if you accept Merriam-Webster's as a correct description of this part of the grammar.

The linguist in me says consulting an authority other than the consensus of speakers is probably a waste of your fleeting mortal days. But as a native speaker of English, yeah, your girlfriend's usage sounds odd to me too.

Now go get that produce and make something with it so delicious that you'll both have to stop talking and eat.
posted by eritain at 7:42 PM on June 6, 2008

In her analogy, it would be like she was saying "Let's go to Store"

"Let's go to market" is a sentence that could mean "let's go shopping at a market."

I think her particular usage is quirky but acceptable.
posted by lampoil at 8:01 PM on June 6, 2008

> Let Us take Car to Farmers Market and buy Pastry for Meal with Them.

Wait, is your girlfriend from Yorkshire?
posted by Listener at 8:20 PM on June 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd go to Union Square Farmer's Market but probably not to the Union Square Farmers' Market, nor to Farmers' Market.

I didn't do English at college but the only prize I got in grade school was for English (in Britain, half a century ago, and I'm a Yorkshireman.)
posted by anadem at 8:52 PM on June 6, 2008

What mr_roboto brings up reminds me of the debate at the University of Minnesota a few years back about its Scholars Walk (although there is less quibbling of apostrophes here)

And, for the record, yeah, I think you're right.
posted by five_dollars at 9:20 PM on June 6, 2008

British people often say "let's go to market", just like they say "let's go to hospital" - they tend to drop the article more often (as discussed in this thread). We do that with common nouns, usually things which are broadly understood as not needing to be distinguished (so not "let's go the school where Mr. X teaches" but "let's go to school").

If the farmer's market is understood as entirely common, the article could get dropped, but in america that's unlikely to be how most people do it. But I don't think it's due to being a proper noun.
posted by mdn at 9:45 PM on June 6, 2008

You can't win this, but you can at least have fun with it. Add an indefinite article. "Let's go to a Union Square Farmers Market!"
posted by blue_beetle at 10:39 PM on June 6, 2008

This little piggy went to market.
posted by zippy at 2:33 AM on June 7, 2008

At a job, you can start off by calling someone "the new guy" and then it can become "New Guy", where no article is needed.

Ah, but there's a difference here, since in the first instance it's a description, while in the second it's an appellation.
posted by macdara at 2:34 AM on June 7, 2008

Am I the only one jabbing his ear about a question on grammar that starts with "between my girlfriend and I"? Oh cruel filter!

What your girlfriend is doing is very common in corporate speak. Unless the farmers' market is a trade name is should not be capitalized. When I see Farmer's Market, I assume that someone named Farmer opened a market.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:51 AM on June 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

In the US, midwest. If it's the kind of thing where a bunch of "farmers"* congregate in a plaza and sell their wares in a casual fashion, once or twice a week, it would definitely be "the farmers' market" to my ear.

But if it was a permanent or semi-permanent installation- regular business hours in a fixed location, with a sign that said "Farmers Market", then the article might be extraneous. Especially if it was a co-op of some kind.

So in your situation, it seems correct (to me) that "the farmers' market" is correct.

It would only be "farmer's" if it were the wares of one farm/farmer.

* Strikes me as odd that these "farmers" are selling produce from boxes, marked with the names of farms way outside the area I'm in. Are there really potato farmers from Idaho coming into Chicago to sell individual potatoes?
posted by gjc at 8:47 AM on June 7, 2008

We discussed something like this once before: "He had to go to hospital" or "She went to market". Is farmer's market an institutional noun?
posted by SPrintF at 8:50 AM on June 7, 2008

Aren't "Good Chinese" and "Close Chinese" now proper nouns for those restaurants, even though they are not the names the proprietors have chosen?

This is exactly the right way to look at it. If you were operating on your girlfriend's wavelength, you'd both be talking about "Farmer's Market," you'd both know what you meant, and there would be no controversy. Since you, for whatever reason, find it unacceptable, you are having, between the two of you, exactly the sort of (basically silly, but undeniably absorbing) argument the entire English-speaking world likes to get into about more common sources of controversy, waving copies of Strunk & White and the OED at each other. But there is no One Valid Answer; what you're looking for here is group validation, so you can go to your girlfriend and say "Look, a bunch of people on the internet agree with me!" But she's unlikely to accept that as definitive. If I were you, I'd go along with her and make "Farmer's Market" your mutual pet name for the place, but I'm not you, so I suspect this will be an ongoing controversy. Try not to let it harsh your mellow excessively.

We discussed something like this once before: "He had to go to hospital" or "She went to market".

Actually, that's an entirely different issue, involving differences between US and UK article usage.
posted by languagehat at 1:05 PM on June 7, 2008

“The Farmer’s Market” (proper noun, capitalized) would not be an uncommon structure in Canadian English, where people over 40 quite often say “the Loblaws,” “the Canadian Tire,” and the like. Seven years ago I wrote a blog post about this phenomenon. I expect it is not unique to Canadian English, but would be so unusual in American English as to prompt a question on the Ask MetaFilter.
posted by joeclark at 2:09 PM on June 7, 2008

joeclark, that usage sounds pretty familiar to me, but I'm from Seattle, after all, and we do occasionally overlap with some Canadianisms.
posted by litlnemo at 1:59 PM on June 8, 2008

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