May 19, 2004

Microsoft prescriptivism

There is a set of on-line prescriptive primers primer on how to write prose that includes Microsoft's trademarks. I've already violated its rules in the opening sentence of this post, unfortunately. Let me start again and do it correctly...

There is a set of on-line prescriptive primers on how to write prose that includes Microsoft® trademarks. You can see one of them here; (I learned about it from the amusing citation of it here; Keith Ivey has pointed out to me that it is based on material from the International Trademarks Association, which I will write about in a later post). It includes this stern injunction:

Do Not Use Microsoft Trademarks in the Possessive or Plural Form

Microsoft trademarks should never be used in the possessive or plural form, but should be introduced as a proper adjective followed by an appropriate descriptor.

Correct: This presentation was created using PowerPoint® presentation manager

Incorrect: Widget Software Company included some PowerPoints in its presentation

So not only does this evil company want to control all operating systems, browsers, word processors, audio players, spreadsheets, mailers, messaging presentation, and all other software in the whole damn world, crushing the life out of any rival companies by such illegal means as may be necessary; it wants its registered marks to be, unlike virtually all other nouns in the English language, nouns without a plural or genitive case forms -- the very inflections that are definitive for noun status in English.

I for one can't believe that they seriously think it is damaging to their interests if I say I am so impressed by Word's many cool features (using a genitive form of the Microsoft trademark Word®). I think that (once again) we have a case of people who want to say something that involves grammar only they have no idea how to control the terminology so as to say what they mean.

The "incorrect" example cited above has a feature they don't mention at all, yet it is crucial: it extends the meaning of the proper noun (and registered mark) PowerPoint® to a new meaning as a common noun meaning "individual slide in a set of visual presentation aids projected from a computer". That is a totally different issue: it's like Hoover not wanting vacuum cleaners (of any make) to be called hoovers as they are in Britain, or Frigidaire not wanting to hear people talking about buying some other maker's frigidaire, or the Xerox Corporation hating the notion of a xerox that was actually made on a Canon. This is about trademark dilution.

But what they actually say in the quote above is that they don't want any Microsoft trademark to appear in the plural or the genitive. Now, they seem to have missed the point that their trademark Windows® already is morphologically in the plural form, so it can only appear in the plural (though of course it is syntactically singular: Windows® is junk, not *Windows® are junk; this can happen with plural nouns: compare with Cornflakes is my absolute favorite breakfast). And as for the genitive ("possessive") form, it is formed by an inflectional process so productive that it applies to absolutely every new noun added to the language, and they can't possibly be serious about blocking it.

And indeed, they're not. On a hunch, I went to their mission statement page, and as I was expecting, I read this:

Microsoft's mission: To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.

Genitive case on their most important linguistic property, their corporate name itself (and with no ® symbol), on a key Microsoft web page. I thought so! As is so often the case, the prescriptivists don't think their prescriptions have to apply to them, only to the little people like you and me.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 19, 2004 06:58 PM