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What's in a nAME(cq)?

A
t the 2000 American Copy Editors Society conference in Baltimore, several people asked me how to argue for the preservation of basic rules of capitalization and punctuation when colleagues insist that companies "be called what they want to be called," no matter how *FunKY!! their logos might be. It's a tough case to make to those who don't immediately see how silly all this has become, but here are some tips.

1. Everything you need to know about capitalization you learned in kindergarten.

Well, that might be an exaggeration, but the point is that the most basic of capitalization rules are not to be trifled with. Proper nouns are capitalized. All caps is for initial-based abbreviations. Skip the capital letters and you're left with this:

A $12 million merger announced Monday will unite allmannerofthings.com and youdbetterbelieveit.com, two of Pittsburgh's fastest-growing Internet companies.
Readers glancing at this paragraph -- and you'd better believe that readers glance -- will decide whether it's worth reading based on three words: Monday, Internet and Pittsburgh. The proper-nouns-are-capped rule is there for a reason: It makes the important things stand out.

2. Funky logos are nothing new.

In the old days, battles on this front usually involved companies that insisted on being identified in all caps. The uppercase treatment, after all, makes something STAND OUT. But there weren't as many battles as there are today, because copy editors and even writers knew that logos are logos and English is English. "You want all caps?" an ink-stained wretch with a green eyeshade might have asked. "Go buy an ad!"

But then something changed, and I'm not exactly sure when or why. Maybe it was the decline of the green eyeshade. Maybe up-and-coming copy editors of the 1970s and '80s figured that if Adidas and "Thirtysomething" (not a company name, but the point's the same) wanted their names lowercased -- obscured rather than trumpeted -- that didn't quite merit the "Go buy an ad" response. But this capitulation has been oddly selective. Plenty of TV shows and movies before "Thirtysomething" had lowercased logos, and I've never seen Macy's lowercased -- but there it is, not only lowercased but also with a star where the apostrophe should be -- on the side of every store. Do we need to send reporters and copy editors on field trips?

By the way, for those who need a refresher, the AP style rule on company names is that all caps is used only if each letter is pronounced as a separate letter. So CSX is CSX, but the snappy little ARCOs and PEPCOs are initial-capped, even if they are each-letter-stands-for-something acronyms. Usually they don't even meet this standard: Arco is (or at least was) Atlantic Richfield Co.; Pepco is Potomac Electric Power Co. -- so what do those O's stand for?

3. Logos don't even necessarily represent what a company wants to be called.

Look at Macy's, or should I say macy*s? (You'll be doing a lot of looking at Macy's during my little essay, unless by some miracle on 34th Street I send you to Gimbels. The Macy's case illustrates almost every one of my points.) Heck, look all around you. You might be hard pressed to find a consumer product or show-biz title whose packaging or publicity doesn't take liberties with the rules of capitalization. But does that mean we have to write THREE'S COMPANY or KRAFT Macaroni and Cheese DINNER? Of course not.

Better yet, look at this excerpt from a letter from an actual flack, which was sent to copy chiefs across the D.C. area:

Just a reminder that we are Inova Health System, not INOVA. Inova isn't an acronym. Inova is just a name, with roots in the words "Northern Virginia," where we were born and raised, and "innovative," which is what we try to be.

Much of the confusion comes from our logo (see above). In the logo, all the letters are capitalized for stylistic reasons. But I've yet to see an article where INOVA HEALTH SYSTEM appears. That looks ridiculous to everyone.

Inova is one of the good guys. I'd like to introduce you to one of the bad guys, though with all due respect I should mention that this guy is on his deathbed. US West, which was its own company until a recent purchase by Qwest Communications, simultaneously promulgated a ridiculously rendered logo (USWEST) and a ridiculously rendered name (U S West, which I suppose we should have pronounced "U [dramatic pause] S West"). Which brings me to my next point:

4. A lot of companies can't decide what they call themselves.

I wish I had collected examples of this. I've seen Web sites where a company's name was rendered at least three different ways. I've seen many, many Web sites with two different renderings of a company name -- US West is one; another pretty much defunct company, Erols, was another. Erols still exists as a brand name, so you can point your browser at www.erols.com and see for yourself: The title bar says "Erol's." Elsewhere it says "Erols," without the apostrophe. At one time, I believe, the apostrophe-vs.-no-apostrophe tally was about evenly split. Today "Erols" is winning, but it isn't the shutout it should be.

Then there are J.C. Penney and the new Exxon Mobil. These are the way the company names exist in corporate officialdom, but company flacks would have us bow to the logos and write:

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said sales increased last year at its JCPenney stores.
Exxon Mobil Corp. plans to open 500 new ExxonMobil service stations.
Come on, guys, pick one. If you hate those periods and those spaces so much, tell it to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Until then, newspapers run by grown-ups will tell you where to stick your logos.

5. Don't worry about crashing the Internet.

World Wide Web addresses can be case-sensitive, but domain names, the part of the address that ends in ".com" or ".org" or whatever, are not. So you won't be sending readers on a detour if you capitalize the first letter of a dot-com company's name. Stylistically, however, it is important to decide whether you're dealing with a name or an address. Internet addresses that are simply addresses should be lowercased, but if the name and the address are functionally the same (typing the name Amazon.com into a browser, for example, will get a Web user to the address www.amazon.com), use the name. But don't use a Web address to invent a Web-site name that doesn't exist:

WRONG: Bill Walsh runs a Web site called TheSlot.com.
RIGHT: Bill Walsh runs a Web site called The Slot (www.theslot.com).
6. Punctuation is not decoration.

This is a multifaceted issue, and although I remain a purist I will admit that it presents some difficult decisions on where we, as editors, should draw the line. In referring to the Macy's logo I write macy*s with an asterisk, but in fact it's a five-sided star, the good ol' American kind. But I don't trust Kinko's or your installation of Windows to have the same font I might use to render that star, and many if not most newspapers would also run into a problem reproducing such a thing. So even if the grown-up spelling of Macy's hadn't been grandfathered in before the lowercase generation was born, editors would have to decide whether to use the asterisk instead or whether to treat the star as the stylized apostrophe that it obviously is. I use the word "stylized" a lot in this discussion. To me, the asterisk in the name of the company that wants to be called E*TRADE is a stylized hyphen, the same as the funky old seal in the flag of the Arkansas Democrat-hyphen-Gazette. So when I write about the Internet brokerage, it's E-Trade. I maintain that the asterisk is being used as decoration, not punctuation, and should be left out the same way publications leave out the Macy's star and the Democrat-Gazette seal and other symbols that cannot be reproduced. But the asterisk is right there on the keyboard. Some would argue that that is where the line should be drawn, and I can't say that's a wholly unreasonable position.

Toss in Guess(?) and Yahoo(!) and AnnTaylor(.), however, and I think it makes sense to edit out punctuation in corporate names that is either distracting or purely decorative. The false-alarm sentence enders in these logos are bad enough, but the constraints that the question mark and the exclamation point place on headline writers make this decision easy for me. Imagine writing "Earnings Rise at Yahoo!" in 36-point type in a publication that isn't a hired cheerleader for any other company.

I find a certain satisfaction, by the way, in observing that the Web's conventions permit no decorative punctuation in www.yahoo.com and www.etrade.com. Those who lowercase all Web companies' names (see point No. 5) should think about this.

7. "But that's their trademarked name! That's what it says on their press release!"

The companies and their trademark lawyers want you to duplicate their capitalization. They also want you to use the trademark symbol. They also want you to use the word "brand" and a generic identifier to guard against the loss of their trademarks (journalists eat Big Macs; McDonald's lawyers might want us to eat BIG MAC® brand sandwich products). Are you going to give in to all of those demands? Do you want your stories to look like press releases?

8. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Tomorrow a company could incorporate with the name iNTERNETaBcDeFgHiJkLmNoPqRsTuVwXyZ.com. Or worse. Are you still going to forsake journalism in favor of logo replication? I hear Kinko's is hiring.


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