Inside Out

Notes on seeking wisdom and crafting software

On common nouns

Table of contents

Dear Self,

Stop using common nouns to address people.

Let me clarify that for you. You have colleagues, partners and customers from various parts of the World. Naturally you need to address them in the process of collaborating with each other. E.g. in the daily stand ups, team chats etc.. You can address them in a discussion like

  • This work is assigned to Derek Shepherd, or
  • This work is assigned to Seattle
  • This work is assigned to Dog lover

Do you already see the difference?

Not so precise

Wiktionary defines common noun as:

A noun that denotes any member, or all members, of a class; an ordinary noun such as “dog” or “city”.

The definition itself speaks of the challenge. Common nouns are not precise. They may mean any one or everyone in a collective unit. It just makes the comprehension difficult. Audience requires the context that there’s just a single Derek Shepherd in your partner team which works out of Seattle.

We’re leaving a lot to interpretation, which brings us to…


Common nouns speak to a collective body. They are extremely powerful ways to build consensus and motivate people of similar tastes.

What if the audience is not of similar taste as you?

This work is assigned to Seattle

Did you not just draw line of classification between people? Amongst the N participants, this is assigned to those from Seattle. On hearing Seattle, it brings images of beautiful skyscrappers, ferry boats to my mind, but…

Was that necessary here?

Your intention is to communicate about this work and the responsible person, but you ended up communicating about a place called Seattle. Geography is a classification boundary when you’re using it to address people; just like Gender, Color of skin, Religion etc..

There’s a place for using the common nouns, this is not one.

And the connotations

Common nouns, by the definition of being broad, often carry additional connotations.

This work is assigned to Dog lover

There could be just one Dog lover amongst the audience, and there could be few who belong to non-lovers. Was it necessary to bring out these feelings in your audience when you were just talking about assigning work?

So, may I urge you to never use common nouns if they can draw a line between people? And be a man of few precise and sweet words if possible.