You’d think proper nouns would be easy for journalists to identify, since we’ve had many years of training in the English language. But I’d argue that determining if a word is a proper noun – and if it should be capitalized – sends more journalists and content marketing writers to the dictionary, Associated Press Stylebook and Internet than any other writing question. So, how do you know what is a proper noun, and how do you format it?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines a proper noun as “a noun that designates a particular being or thing, does not take a limiting modifier, and is usually capitalized in English.”
In the content marketing world, that means any brand names or product names should be capitalized, unless of course, the company has a registered trademark style of lowercase, like “iPod.”
In this post I’ll cover a few other important proper noun guidelines to follow as you’re writing any kind of branded content.
Keep proper nouns consistent
Make sure all your product names appear the same way everywhere, especially in the text (not the logo) on your website. If all mention are consistent, it’ll be easier for journalists to get the names right.
Most importantly, your brand will look more professional to your customers. If you can’t even keep your own naming conventions right, what other mistakes does your brand make?
You also want to communicate to your customers that you are confident in your identity. Your customers will also be less confused if you keep all your spelling and naming conventions consistent.
Treat product and event names differently from generic uses
Proper nouns get even trickier to handle when companies trademark phrases as the name of a program, or an event the company holds/sponsors.
Let’s say there’s a company that sells exercise equipment. To support type II diabetes research, they are launching a series of promotional fundraising walks across the country. They trademark this event series with the name, “Get Moving.”
When used in text to describe the events themselves, “Get Moving” should be capitalized. However, in the following sentence, it should not:
“Families across American are encouraged to get moving in an effort to raise awareness and funds to support type II diabetes research.”
This is because the term “get moving” is not used in conjunction with how it was trademarked.
Check reference materials to verify proper formatting
Another area where determining if a noun is proper or not creates intense discussions amongst marketers and journalists is the food category – specifically cheese and wine subcategories.
In 2011, the Associated Press Stylebook introduced an entire section to food guidelines, and sometimes a little research is needed to understand the rules.
But here are the basics:
- When listed as a product, the cheese/wine type is always capitalized. For example: ABC Company Cajun-Spiced Cheddar Cheese. However if just cheddar cheese is used, it’s always lowercased.
- If the food is named after a person, city or area, that proper noun is almost always capitalized. For example: Boston cream pie has Boston capitalized, but not cream pie.
- For wines, if the name of the wine refers to the type of grape, it is lowercased. If it refers to a city or region, it is uppercased. The same rule applies to cheese.
- Some foods are trademarked, and always follow the trademark style.
Avoid using too many capital letters
An article littered with capitalized words looks extremely promotional, even without reading a word of the text. And when it comes to appealing to visitors, the fine line between reader-friendly and overly commercial can be as narrow as using too many capital letters.
Create a style guide
If your brand has too many products, services, events and proper nouns to keep track of, a style guide could help.
Especially if your team has multiple content creators and editors, they need to be on the same page with how to talk about your brand. (They should also know how to write for your brand’s personas.)
Create a style guide in the same alphabetical format as the AP Stylebook. Include examples so your content creators know that they’re using all the names correctly.
This is also a good source to include other words and phrases that may be inconsistent in your current marketing materials. Does your brand use the oxford comma? Are exclamation marks OK? How do you format state names? These are a few things to consider.
If it’s not clear how a word or phrase should be formatted, just ask your marketing director, product or brand manager. And if you get varying responses, then it’s time to decide on a final version to include in the style guide.
Though checking on the capitalization of proper nouns seems like a tedious task, it’s worth the effort to ensure a clean, professional final product that your readers will appreciate and respect.
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This post was originally published in October, 2013 and has been updated for relevancy and comprehensiveness.