typewriter

A handful of companies like to see their names written entirely in upper case. Gigabyte and Asus are two that spring to mind, there are others.

Companies can do what they like. Journalists and editors shouldn’t use the upper case for these names.

We’re journalists, not brand managers

How Asus, Gigabyte or anyone else presents their company name in their own material is their affair. They have no right dictating how others treat their names.

If we gave in, it could be the thin end of the wedge. Next they will insist we print their names using a particular font or Pantone colour.

Breaking the rules

In written English proper nouns and the start of a sentence each get an initial capital letter. Think of them as signposts to help readers understand text.

Companies names are proper nouns. A single initial capital letter tells the reader that word is a name, not a description or verb.

Of course the fabric of our language doesn’t fall apart if we occasionally break the rules. Good writers do it all the time. On the other hand, communications would fail if people just wrote things how they pleased.

Mid-word capitals

Upper-case letters often appear in the middle of product names like PageMaker.

This is not a good practice and not every publication goes along with it. For example, The Economist would change PageMaker to Pagemaker.

Sadly the mid-name-capital train has left the station. Spell checkers insist on the capital M in the middle of PageMaker. It would be hard and fruitless to campaign against this. I’ve given up that fight as there are more important battles elsewhere.

Apple’s iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad are also problems. Apple’s brand power is so strong even the mighty Economist gives ground on these brand names. Editors are confused about how to treat these words if they fall at the start of a sentence.

If iPad why not GIGABYTE?

Good point. It is a question of signposting.

A word written entirely in upper case disrupts reader comprehension. This is precisely why companies want their names written in capitals. They want their brand to leap out of the page even if it undermines the rest of the words.

For that reason alone, journalists should resist.

There’s another signposting reason. Writing words in capitals is reserved for acronyms and initialisms. Good editorial style demands initialisms that are pronounced as a word, not spoken as a string of letters, like Nato should be treated as ordinary words.

Writing a word like Gigabyte in capitals signposts it should be pronounced as a string of letters.

Like shouting

Online writing conventions say words written in capitals indicate shouting. Brands think having names in capitals is like shouting them out. Their goal is to maximise their brand exposure.

Our job is to ease the flow of information to the reader, putting roadblocks, any roadblocks, in the way is bad.

Capitals make text harder to read. Use too many and it becomes hard to spot the proper nouns and sentence starts.

Update: Signposting pronunciation

One point I missed when writing about brand names like iPhone, iPad and so on is they are pronounced as eye-phone, eye-pad. There’s a logic here that he lower case i followed by a pronounceable name signposts pronunciation.

Rules number four and five in my Writing for the web in 300 words say:

Learn grammar. Forget what teachers said about long words making you look smart. It isn’t true. Instead use simple words, grammar and sentences. It is harder to go wrong.

Finding simple words isn’t always easy, especially when you are in a hurry.

A thesaurus helps. I sometimes use Microsoft Word’s thesaurus when I’m stuck. There are online thesauri and, whisper this because I’m now a paperless journalist, there are two on my bookshelf at home.

And then there is Ironic Sans’ Thsrs.

Thsrs is a short word thesaurus designed to help Twitter users find shorter words to fit inside the 140 character limit. Thsrs is a great tool for digging out a simpler, easier-to-read alternative, option, choice.

Helen Sword’s Wasteline Test is another useful tool to tighten your writing.

All you need to know about web writing in under 300 words. From my Wordcamp NZ presentation.

  1. Start straight away. Don’t waste time warming up.
  2. Reduce barriers between your ideas and your audience.
  3. Write clearly. Use readily understandable language. Be unambiguous.
  4. Learn grammar. Forget what teachers said about long words making you look smart. It isn’t true.
  5. Instead use simple words, grammar and sentences. It is harder to go wrong.
  6. Go easy on adjectives and adverbs.
  7. Spellcheck.
  8. Try to imagine your reader – an ordinary bloke or woman. Write for that person.
  9. Use ‘be’ verbs sparingly to make your writing more interesting. Use them even less in headlines.
  10. “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Most people think it was Mark Twain; it was Blaise Pascal, a French Mathematician.
  11. Keep sentences short; up to 20 words. A 15 word sentence limit is better.
  12. Keep paragraphs short; usually one to four sentences. Only use more if you need to.
  13. Use plenty of full stops and line breaks. Use lists and bullet points. Be generous with crossheads (secondary headings).
  14. Highlight keywords with bold or italics.
  15. Writing is story telling.
  16. Summarise your story in the headline.
  17. If you write an introduction use it to tell readers what your story is about. Expand on your ideas in the following paragraphs.
  18. Write so you can cut the story at any point yet readers have the maximum information.
  19. Aim for short and crisp. Online readers tire after 200 words and start dropping out at around 300. Keep most stories below this length although you can write longer pieces.1
  20. You can find longer explanations of all these points elsewhere on this site.

My presentation from WordCampNZ in 300 words.

1.  While this is still true, there are good reasons to write more than 300 words. Google prefers longer posts and readers are less scared of scrolling down than they were in the past.

Good writing is direct, clear and precise. It sends your thoughts and ideas directly to readers.

Concrete nouns keep your writing on track. They are unambiguous and specific. Use concrete nouns to pin down facts and inform readers.

Nouns are concrete when they refer to something you can touch, smell, see, taste or hear. They are things you sense directly.

Banana, chair, piston engine, trumpet, pterodactyl are all concrete nouns.

I like to think of concrete nouns as crunchy, but they could just as easily be squishy, smelly, loud or colourful.

On the other hand, abstract nouns are things you can’t form a picture of. They are ideas, conditions and qualities, such as courage and happiness.

Many abstract nouns started life as verbs or adverbs, but become abstract nouns with suffixes. So fascinate, becomes fascination, credible becomes credibility and so on.

If you report on events steer clear of abstract nouns.

Abstract nouns are useful when you want to generalise or when writing about ideas. At the same time they make it hard to figure out exactly what the writer means and are open to misinterpretation.

I hate seeing the word aplenty in headlines.

At first I thought my reaction to seeing the word in a news headline was a matter of personal taste. Or perhaps prejudice. To me the word feels old-fashioned and pompous.

After a moment’s thought, I realised aplenty offends me because the word is an adjective masquerading as a verb.

The best, clearest writing mainly uses nouns and verbs. Only use adjectives when they make the meaning more precise.

Headlines are a concentrated form of writing crunching meaning into a handful of words.

There’s less room for adjectives in headlines than in everyday sentences. Good headlines use nouns and strong verbs.

A headline like ‘iPads aplenty’ doesn’t include a verb. The word aplenty plays a verb-like role but it doesn’t shout, sing or dance. It just sits there flaccid, weak and boring.

And it doesn’t convey much information other than to tell use there are lots of iPads.

So what? Why are there lots of iPads, where are there lots of iPads?

If you want to tell readers there are large numbers of iPads use a verb, preferably an active one:

iPads flood Auckland

If you think flood is overused try; choke, swamp or saturate, just don’t use aplenty.