The Writer’s Toolbox – A Company Affair, Part III

In the last installments of the Toolbox?a few weeks back, thanks to intervening obligations and a speaking engagement?we looked at how to handle capitalization, punctuation, and similar issues when using brand names, company names, and trademarks in your writing. The one-line recap: Wherever possible and/or reasonable, go with the company’s preferred spelling and punctuation.

But even if you spell it right, are you using the word right? In the two final installments we’ll look at situations where you might want to reconsider your use of real-life brand names and trademarks.

Going generic
When you blow your nose, do you reach for Kleenex?as in Kleenex Brand Tissue? Or do you grab a piece of generic facial tissue when you sneeze? If You’re like most people, odds are you call it Kleenex and think nothing of it.

Kleenex’s trademark holder, though, thinks plenty about it, and they’re not too happy. In fact, the company has appealed to journalists to stop genericizing their name and diluting their brand. The problem is that It’s already been genericized. It’s become so common to call generic facial tissue Kleenex (even my unabridged Merriam-Webster, while acknowledging the trademark, has a bland, general definition) that they’re fighting a losing battle.

To use or not to use
How can you tell whether a trademark is being used properly or improperly, and whether genericization has taken place? What criteria take a brand name out of the realm of protected use? The specifics get into trademark law, which is beyond the scope of this column; just be aware that as trademarks are absorbed into the common lexicon, their treatment changes.

They may get turned into verbs (“to Google,” anyone?) or nouns (“Saltines” instead of “Saltine crackers”). They may have unusual spelling or punctuation changed or even capitalization altered.

When in doubt, consult your favourite dictionary, as these resources (particularly the online versions) have a pulse on language usage trends. For example, Merriam-Webster lists both the trademarked spelling of “Xerox” (with its accompanying definition) and the lowercased, genericized verb “to xerox”?which is reflective of both the status of the trademark and common usage, much to Xerox’s chagrin. Another good resource is Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares usage trends over the years. While it won’t instruct on whether a brand name has been genericized, it is helpful for noting changes in capitalization and (if you pair it with the right search terms) even usage.

A note about dictionaries: while the much-loved CanOx is valuable for its unique Canadian treatment of words, especially compounds, it has not been updated in a decade (and now that Oxford has closed its Canadian arm, a future update seems unlikely). For current spelling and usage of brand names and trademarks, you’d be better off looking at US sources.

Next week we’ll extend our discussion of brand names and trademarks into the fiction writer’s realm. Can your characters grab a Frappuccino at Starbucks, or do they need to choose a whipped iced coffee from the local cafe? Come back next week and find out.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.