When using a pair of proper noun and common noun placed together, I always doubt what the right order is. I usually come across this situation while writing technical documentation.

For example, consider the following passage with 5 pairs of proper and common nouns:

Orders.pdf & file
Dataexport & folder
outputPath & attribute
export & tag
App.config & file

  1. Proper noun before common noun

Locate the Orders.pdf file inside the Dataexport folder. The location of the Dataexport folder is set to the outputPath attribute of the export tag in the App.config file.

  1. Common noun before proper noun

Locate the file Orders.pdf inside the folder Data export. The location of the folder Dataexport is set to the attribute outputPath of the tag export in the file App.config.

What is the correct choice? If both are correct, which is preferable?

Thank you very much.

  • 1
    I wouldn't worry too much about syntax here. Your context isn't really "standard English prose" - it's an unusual context where you'd be better off focusing on using typography (fonts, punctuation marks, layout, etc.) to distinguish nouns (referencing "types of things") from proper nouns (the "names" of specific instances of those things). Note that we don't say some folder location is set to some attribute - we set the attribute to the folder (the "folder location" is a "fixed value" used to set the value of some variable, such as a specific named "tag"). – FumbleFingers Oct 21 '19 at 12:24
  • Good question. Although both are valid, the choice is usually based on the context. I would say there are several criteria based on which we choose the order. You also have the apostrophe-s and the "of form" options. All four are widely used. – Kris Oct 21 '19 at 12:57
  • 1
    In the given context, use the common noun first: "Locate the file Orders.pdf". Simply because it helps to first know the nature of the noun before its name. When the name is important and the type is less significant, use the other order. HTH. Also @FumbleFingers – Kris Oct 21 '19 at 12:59

Consider that in speech, it is much more common to have the name (proper noun) come before the descriptive noun. We don't say "I went to high school MacArthur" or She lives in subdivision Oak Ridge."

Still, we do say, "She lives in a subdivision, "Oak Ridge." if we want to give the listener additional information about a name.

Technical writing must be crafted for maximum comprehension most of all. The way to do that can be argued; there are examples on both sides of many sentence-structure questions. In general, I believe it helps understanding if the label or adjective noun comes before the proper noun. But I don't consider this a rule:

Find the file "index.html" in the directory "pages."

This structure can vary, based on the understanding level of the audience. If the readers are highly trained administrators, not end-users, you may be able to use more shorthand, or a more conversational sentence structure:

Find "index.html" in \pages.

Find the index file in the pages directory.

As comments suggested, this can be helped by typography or other device. I use quotes for proper nouns (file names, printer names) in user instructions, because they do not depend on formatting (bold, italic) that may be lost in some formats, such as plain-text release notes.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.