May 22, 2004

Trademark grammar

I am very grateful to Keith Ivey for pointing out to me that the International Trademark Association (INTA) is the source of the strange Microsoft prescriptivism about trademarks. The INTA is fuller in its list of prohibitions — and apparently nuttier. Their grammatical prescriptions seem at first sight worse than just insane, because at one point they're self-contradictory. But one can make some sense of it all. Let me explain.

Here are some quotes, with my comments following each.

NEVER use a trademark as a noun. Always use a trademark as an adjective modifying a noun.


  1. LEGO toy blocks
  2. Amstel beer

NEVER modify a trademark to the plural form. Instead, change the generic word from singular to plural.

  1. tic tac candies, NOT tic tacs
  2. OREO cookies, NOT OREOS

Now, to begin with, they cannot possibly mean that you should never use a trademark as a noun. Of course you are not misusing a trademark if you say or write that your kid is crazy about Lego, or that your favorite beer is Amstel. As Barbara Scholz pointed out to me, one only has to look at the practice in advertising campaign slogans:

  • I coulda had a V8! for the V8 brand of vegetable juice (a V8 is a noun phrase in which a is the indefinite article and V8 is the head noun);
  • Have you driven a Ford lately? for the Ford motor company (again, a is the indefinite article and Ford is the head noun);
  • Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon? for Grey Poupon mustard (any is a determinative functioning as determiner of the nominal Grey Poupon, which is a proper name with a structure comprising an attributive adjective modifying a proper noun);
  • This is not your father's Oldsmobile in a campaign to rejuvenate the image of Oldsmobile — an unsuccessful one, since the very last car under the name was produced on April 29, 2004 (your father's is a genitive noun phrase functioning as determiner and Oldsmobile is the head noun);
  • Don't squeeze the Charmin in a campaign that showed women in supermarkets ecstatically squeezing packages of a super-soft toilet tissue (the is the definite article, Charmin is the head noun);

— how could anybody think it was incorrect to use trademarks as nouns, given that millions of dollars are committed to the details of big advertising campaigns and the company controls every line and every word of the copy used? The answer: even quite educated people today know so little about grammar that often they aren't really sure what's a noun and what's not, what's a tense and what's not, what's a passive and what's not, etc., etc.

Notice also that INTA says a trademark must always be used as an adjective. What they mean actually has nothing to do with adjectives. Adjective are words like good, big, soft, reddish, etc. They are often used as attributive modifiers of nouns: good reasons, a big company, etc. But other things can be used as attributive modifiers. Proper nouns can: when we talk about London fog, we are using London (a proper noun) as an attributive modifier of the noun fog. That doesn't mean London is an adjective. It isn't. It's the name of a city. Adjectives never name cities. And adjectives are virtually never trademarked. When we use the expression a London Fog raincoat, we use London Fog (a trademark, with the form of a nominal construction, consisting of a proper noun attributive modifier and a common noun) as an attributive modifier of the noun raincoat. What INTA is saying is that it wants you to always use trademarks as attributive modifiers.

But what the INTA people mean is more subtle than they know how to say, so they get it all wrong. The enemy they are laying defenses against is the danger that a trademark might fall into the public domain. For fear of this (and it can happen), they want to forestall the conversion of certain proper noun trademarks into common count nouns. The worry is that the next stage after writing "Tic Tacs" will be writing "tictacs", and soon people will be referring to some other company's little white mints as tictacs, and soon the trademark might become unprotectable and its value be lost. It would just be a two-syllable word in the dictionary, with a small t, meaning little hard white mint candy.

But notice, none of this is relevant to other products, for example, cars: Porsche is surely very happy for you to praise Porsches as much as you like, calling them Porsches. INTA's intent is clear, but what is actually stated about grammar on their website and in their brochure is nothing like what it is trying to say.

NEVER modify a trademark from its possessive form, or make a trademark possessive. Always use it the form it has been registered in.


  1. Jack Daniel's whiskey, NOT Jack Daniels whiskey
  2. Levi's jeans, NOT Levi jeans

Here they mean only half of what they say. Removing the genitive 's from a trademark that has it built in is illicit: some comanies register a genitive form like Levi's and some register a plural like Tums, and there's a difference. But since every regular noun has a genitive form, every trademark that has the form of a singular noun has a genitive form too: My Porsche's top speed is 130mph is not rationally regarded as a misuse of a trademark. As I pointed out here, Microsoft publishes instructions saying you should never use its trademarked words in the genitive case, and then violates that precept on its own mission statement web page.

NEVER use a trademark as a verb. Trademarks are products or services, never actions.


  1. You are NOT xeroxing, but photocopying on a Xerox copier.
  2. You are NOT rollerblading, but in-line skating with Rollerblade in-line skates.

Here they mean you should never use a noun trademark as a verb, and again that's because its loss of proper noun status might be the start of its falling into the public domain. (Whether a trademark can ever actually be a verb is an interesting question; the old slogan Motorists wise, Simoniz suggests you are supposed to hear Simoniz as a verb, as if it were spelled simonize; but the situation is murky, and I can't find any clear cases of verb trademarks.)

Incidentally, what INTA actually says in the above quote commits the familiar error of confusing classes of words with types of thing. Trademarks are products or services, never actions, they say; and it is true that a trademark is never an action, but then it is also true that a trademark is never a product or a service. A trademark is a word over which a corporation claims some rights. I carefully use font face to draw the distinction here: Jack Daniel's is a product (a bourbon), and not a trademark; Jack Daniel's is a trademark — you can't serve it on the rocks.

Finally, INTA offers a syntactic test for you to use:

A good test for proper use is to remove the trademark from the sentence and see if the sentence (generic) still makes sense. If it does not then you are potentially using the mark as the descriptive term or as a verb and not as an adverb followed by a noun as you should.

If you would like more information on this subject, we suggest INTA's A Guide to Proper Trademark Use

Here's where they contradict themselves: they said above that a trademark must always be used as an "adjective" (they meant attributive modifier). Now they say a trademark must be used "as an adverb followed by a noun". It's just a proofreading error. But it makes you wonder just how much the people who wrote and checked this page must know about grammar if the mistake doesn't leap out at them like it did at me.

Their test is in principle a good one for their purposes. Attributive modifiers are nearly always optional, so if you have dutifully used your trademarks as attributive modifiers throughout, you should find that when you leave the trademark words out, things still make sense without any change in the grammatical structure of what is said. Let's try this test on some advertising copy. I went to the Kraft Foods promotions page and tested the sentences on the left below (results of the experiments are on the right):

Find why Philly is too good to be true and how you could win instantly in store! *Find why is too good to be true and how you could win instantly in store!
You could win 6 Giant® mountain bikes for your family with Jack's Pizza®. *You could win 6 mountain bikes for your family with.

Next I visited Walmart, where at the page about their gun sale policy I did these experiments:

Customers have depended on Wal-Mart for more than 40 years to supply sporting goods me rchandise and equipment, including firearms. *Customers have depended on for more than 40 years to supply sporting goods merchandis e and equipment, including firearms.
Wal-Mart is absolutely committed to provide firearms in the most responsible manner po ssible. *Is absolutely committed to provide firearms in the most responsible manner possible.

On to the Toyota company. I noticed they actually had a site called, suggesting immediately that they don't object to your calling a Toyota a Toyota; and sure enough, check the results of this experiment in trademark omission: helps you find and purchase the Toyota you want quickly. *Helps you find and purchase the you want quickly.

I won't go on with this demonstration that the experiments repeatedly fail; I am shooting fish in a barrel here (with firearms provided in the most responsible manner possible).

The bottom line: it is raving, wild-eyed lunacy to say that no trademarks are corectly used as nouns or that they always have to be attributive modifiers. No company respects these principles; no company could. Yet the people at INTA aren't raving, wild-eyed lunatics. It's just that like an enormous percentage of the educated population of the USA, they know virtually no grammar at all. The schools aren't teaching it, and the linguistics departments that know about it aren't reaching enough college-going students.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 22, 2004 11:42 AM