A few years ago I wrote a guest post for the trademark-and-branding blog Duets Blog that, if I say so myself, seems as fresh and relevant today – especiallytoday – as it did then. I’ve updated it a bit and am publishing it here as a public service.
I realized just the other day that I’ve never written here about my involvement with the question-and-answer site Quora. I’ve been participating since 2013, answering questions about names, taglines, and verbal-branding strategy. Anyone can post a question, and anyone can answer; the platform is free for users, and the tone is generally civil and helpful.
Here are some questions I’ve answered in recent months:
I’m marching to the beat of the Strong Language drummer, with a new post about naughty-sounding brand names with innocent meanings. It may be the only post you’ll read today that has the tags appliances, beverages, pee, and smegma.
Also: March 4 is National Grammar Day, an occasion for remembering what grammar is and is not. (It’s not spelling and punctuation, for starters.) Here are some good places to start:
“Do not aspire to be a grammar Nazi, and don’t indulge people who use the term. Nazis are not funny unless you are Jerry Seinfeld or Mel Brooks. You are not Jerry Seinfeld or Mel Brooks.” – John McIntyre, “Prepare Yourself for National Grammar Day”
Under the capable leadership of Mark Allen, ace copy editor, I was one of the judges in this year’s National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest. (The job was my reward/penance for having won the contest last year.) I am pleased to report that we have selected our winners. Congratulations to first-place poet Adriana Cloudand all the other contestants! Enjoy their haiku, and don’t let any dangling modifiers hit you on your way out.
Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, which means that, among his many other duties, he judges the magazine’s weekly caption contest. Since the contest went weekly in 2004, readers have submitted more than two million entries. Inevitably, Mankoff has pondered why some captions succeed and others fail. And in one chapter of his new memoir/history How About Never—Is Never Good for You?*, published earlier this year, he shares his advice about how to beat the odds.
Here’s the thing: the advice doesn’t apply only to cartoon fans and contest hobbyists. To my surprise and delight, I found that it’s highly pertinent to my own discipline of name development.
I’ve been partnering for several months with Clarity.fmto give short, focused phone consultations about names and verbal branding. I’ve talked to business owners in Mexico, Australia, England, Brazil, and the U.S.; I’ve answered questions about company names, product names, taglines, and even Twitter handles. Most of my callers can’t afford comprehensive name-development services; what they want from me—and my 20-plus years in the branding business—are tips and feedback.
A few themes have emerged from these calls—common naming challenges that many entrepreneurs face. I share them with you in case you’re struggling with your own do-it-yourself naming project.
In his introduction, Yagoda says the inspiration for his title came from a psychoanalytic concept first proposed in the 1950s: “the good-enough mother” (or parent) who doesn’t solve every problem but still manages to get the job done pretty well. “What I’m talking about here,” Yagoda writes, “is good-enough writing. As with parenting, it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve, but it’s definitely achievable. And it’s a decidedly worthwhile goal.”
How to get there? By reading a lot, of course—preferably writing that has been “selected and processed by an editor, and then ‘published.’” And once you sit down to write, Yagoda says, write mindfully. (Here I pause to consider that Ben Yagoda’s surname can be anagrammed into god, yoga, and Yoda.) A big part of mindful writing is maintaining “an awareness of and attention to the (hypothetical or real) person who will eventually be reading your words.”
Yagoda teaches advanced journalism and writing at the University of Delaware—he also writes the Not One-Off Britishisms blog and is a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog—and most of the examples in the book come from his students. The majority of those students, he writes, “put me in mind of what Jack Nicholson famously shouted to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. The Cruise character couldn’t handle the truth, Nicholson said. Well, most students, I’ve found, can’t handle writing ‘well.’ At this point in their writing lives, that goal is simply too ambitious.”
One bad student example should suffice:
The criteria that made this site able to be nominated are because of the uniqueness of the content it possesses.
Yagoda’s suggested not-bad rewrite:
The site has excellent content.
Some specific bits of wisdom from How to Not Write Bad:
On preparing to write: “First, turn off the radio, the iPod, the television; put your phone on silence and in your pocket, X out of or minimize all screens other than the one you’re writing on. Multitasking = bad writing.”
On spelling: “Spell-check, in many ways a wonderful innovation, has caused spelling muscles—never especially robust to being with—to atrophy to the point that they now have the firmness of mint jelly.”
On punctuation: “You can dismiss apostrophes—and punctuation in general—as just a series of technical details. I prefer to look at them as measures of mindfulness.”
On the inadvisability of punctuating by ear: “”[S]tudents tend to insert commas at places where they would pause in speaking the sentence. This has about the same reliability as the rhythm method in birth control.”
On the passive voice: “The passive is a problem if and only if it leaves in its wake an insistent question that begins with the word Who?”
How to Not Write Bad is available in all the usual places, in print and e-formats, including, naturally, on Amazon, where Yagoda admits to obsessively tracking the book’s ranking. On publication day, February 5, he combined this “narcissistic endeavor” with some fitting philanthropy: For every ranking drop of 100, he donated a copy of How to Not Write Bad to Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia after-school program that teaches kids ages 7 to 17 “to think and write clearly.” I think the game is off now—at last check he’d donated 17 copies—but you may still want to support Mighty Writers, which looks like a mighty fine endeavor. And buy the book, of course.
Disclaimers: 1) I received a review copy of How to Not Write Bad from the publisher, Riverhead Books. 2) The David Friedman to whom Yagoda dedicates the book is not the David Friedman to whom I am related.
* Yagoda acknowledges that within 10 to 15 years many uses of singular they will be acceptable in formal writing. “However,” he writes, “they’re not acceptable now, so you have to make adjustments.”
Q. When referring to a zombie, should I use the relative pronoun who (which would refer to a person) or that (since, technically, the zombie is no longer living)? Essentially, does a zombie cease to become a “person” in the grammatical sense?
A. Let’s assume this is a serious question, in which case you, as the writer, get to decide just how much humanity (if any) and grammatical sense you wish to invest in said zombie. That will guide your choice of who or that.
Let’s say you’ve spent a lot of time and money developing a name that’s distinctive, legally available, and a good match for your naming brief. You can still end up with a less-than-desirable name if you neglect to ask these important questions.
1. How will it look in lower-case spelling? A name like IfByPhone or PopUpEdu depends for clarity on intercap letters. On Twitter and other applications, however, the name may appear in all lower-case letters—ifbyphone, popupedu—with a potential loss of intelligibility and pronounceability.
2. How will it look in black and white? Color can transform your company or product name into a sharp-looking logo. But for some applications—press kits, white papers, email—you won’t have the benefit of color. If you rely on color to make your point, as the Big Ten athletic conference did in its recent logo redesign, you risk losing your message. (I’m not saying that Big Ten is necessarily confusing anyone, but a smaller organization that attempts a similar strategy may be asking for trouble.)
3. How will it read in the newspaper? Speaking of black-and-white, print journalism isn’t dead yet. No matter how stridently you insist on accent marks or punctuation in your name (Aol. and Yahoo!, I’m talking to you), the business reporter on deadline is unlikely is share your obsession.
4. How does it sound on the telephone? Or in everyday conversation, for that matter? I've written previously about the counterintuitive pronunciation of Virgance. Here’s an even more-boggling example: μTorrent, a popular file-sharing client, is spelled with the Greek letter μ (mu), which is commonly pronouncedmee (in modern Greek), myoo (in English), or micro (in scientific measurements). But μTorrent’s URL is utorrent.com. The program’s Swedish creator, Ludvig Strigeus, “usually” pronounces the name as “you torrent” but has also suggested “microtorrent,” “mytorrent” (my, pronounced mee, is Swedish for μ), and “mutorrent” as possible pronunciations. For a consumer-facing company or product, this much word-of-mouth confusion would be catastrophic; it’s not exactly wonderful for μTorrent, either. (See also #3, above.)
5. Do you have a misleading or undesirable acronym? I’m currently talking with a prospective client, a startup, whose working name is a three-word idiom that ends in a word starting with “U.” Reduced to its initials, the company looks like a university. That’s misleading, but it could be much worse: the initials could be a real WTF.
6. Finally, do proceed carefully with those qrazy Q-names. I still don’t know whether QRANK is pronounced “cue-rank” or “crank.” And that makes me cranky.
This post is for all you name-it-yourselfers out there: you sole proprietors, partnerships, small businesses, and zero-budget nonprofits.
Let’s assume that, on your own or with the help of a pal or two, you’ve come up with a few business names that you think are pretty good. But you’re not absolutely certain—and you’re so exhausted by the creative effort you can’t tell which name to choose.
So you do what comes naturally. You start asking around.
“Take a look at these names,” you say to your sister-in-law as she’s dropping off the kids at your house. “Are any of them any good?”
“Which name do you like best?” you ask your golf buddies over beers at the clubhouse. “Don’t hold back!”
“I’m starting a business but I can’t reveal anything about it yet,” you tell your dog-walker. “Just let me know what you think of these five names.”
Finally, you ring my doorbell and ask my opinion. And I give it to you straight: Stop. Right. Now. Stop asking your friends whether they like your names.
Why? Because the answers you’ll hear will be irrelevant at best and depressing at worst.