Read the following sentence and ask yourself what’s wrong with it:
I began my fitness regimen by googling “low-impact workouts.”
Your attention should be drawn to the term “googling,” as it is being used as a verb in lieu of “searching.” While this type of language may be commonplace among millions who use Google every day, not everyone agrees with or approves of such usage. Primarily, the folks who have a problem with it are Google employees, especially their legal staff. Using trademarked names like Google as a verb, in the name-owners’ eyes, lessens the impact of the name itself as a known brand and can be a copyright issue.
Other Issues to Consider
Product and service names are trademarked to distinguish one company’s brand from others. When a brand takes off, the name can often become a household word. Over time, the word becomes more generic as it is used to refer to other things not related to the original brand. Consider terms like Bubble Wrap (trademarked in 1983 by Sealed Air Corporation) and Crock Pot (trademarked in 1972 by Sunbeam Products, Inc.
Used in everyday writing and conversation, terms like these and many others are typically not capitalized and are used to refer to any brand of the product they resemble. To be politically correct, Bubble Wrap should be called simply packing material or inflated packaging. A Crock Pot, if it is not an actual Crock Pot made by Sunbeam, should be referred to as a slow cooker.
Other words, like zipper and aspirin, were once trademarked but lost the status and can now be used generically without offending anyone or infringing on copyright. Court rulings have also removed trademark protection from these once-brand names:
Whether your weight yo-yos around the holidays or you like to dumpster-dive for trashed treasures, you can write confidently with a little research into what is still trademarked and what is not. The most-used style guides, AP and Chicago, are constantly updating as branded words fall out of trademark protection.
What the Style Guides Say
Back to using Google as a verb, while the company forbids it in a business sense, it is not legally binding in common talk or casual writing. Merriam-Webster includes both lower-case and upper-case entries and notes the term is “often capitalized.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, says the lawyers want it capitalized then goes on to tell us to ignore that if we want. AP presents Google, Googled, and Googling all capitalized. Unless referring to the actual company, it is safer to use generic terms.
Few times in the history of the written word has such a small character caused so much contention as the serial comma. Also known as the Oxford comma (after the dictionary by the same name) and the Harvard comma (after the school, of course), this punctuation mark divides more than words. It has the uncanny ability to divide authors and editors into one of two camps: for or against.
Among those who support the use of the serial comma are the Chicago Manual of Style and William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, authors of another well-known writing style guide, “The Elements of Style.” In this guide, the author is directed to use the serial comma “in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction.” For example, “He opened the package, reviewed the contents, then abruptly tossed it aside.” Or, “Her skirt was a conglomeration of red, orange, and blue fabric scraps.”
Avid haters of the serial comma include the Associated Press (AP) and publications such as People, Variety, and The National Enquirer. AP prescribes that the serial comma should be omitted in all cases except when doing so would cause misreading. This is in direct opposition to the Chicago Manual of Style which states serial commas should always be used, except in the same circumstance. If this isn’t confusing enough, writers for Variety must accept that the publication basically sticks to its own unwritten grammar rules.
The Comma in Court
In March of 2017, the serial comma had its day in court. Dairy delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy, a company in Maine, sued their employer regarding overtime pay and who was qualified to receive it. The U.S. Court of Appeals determined on March 13 that the way Maine’s employment laws were written, the law was unclear and “ambiguous,” leaving too much room for misinterpretation. The problem of clarity came down to one missing comma!
In the end, the five drivers involved won their appeal, and the court ruled they were eligible for overtime benefits. Maine does have its own style guide for legislation which instructs law-writers to omit the serial comma. This could be revisited, however, as the drivers’ overtime case continues moving forward.
Which Way to Sway?
As a writer or an editor, the best tool you have in your box is communication. Writers want their work to stand apart in clarity, and an editor or publisher may have different criteria for the piece than the writer is accustomed to. Always clarify which style the end publication prefers, and it will make both of your jobs easier. Afterward, you can celebrate a little if your side of the comma conundrum has won the battle.
Character, plot, and place are intertwined elements good writers use artfully. Sometimes the place is fictional (for example, Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado), or real (Naples, the backdrop of a quartet of Elena Ferrante’s novels), or disguised (Oxford disguised as Christminster by Thomas Hardy).
The Importance of the Setting
The setting imbues the story with the environment’s mood. It layers the tale with meaning about the passage of time, stages of life, constraints felt by the character, and/or as a source motivating the characters’ actions.
Undisguised Real Locations
Stories set in a familiar place help the tale appear more real for the readers. The reader becomes absorbed in a fictional story that seems real because it is set in identifiable locations. These locations change over time and are not boringly static backdrops of the unfolding plot.
Elena Ferrante, who chooses to remain anonymous, picked gritty Naples for her stories of the enduring friendship of two girls who grew up in Rione Luzzatti, a poor neighborhood slum of Naples. Naples has a certain reputation because it is home to the autonomous local mafia clans, collectively known as the Camorra.
Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels have other real settings that the characters visit (Milan, and the island of Ischia), stay in (Pisa), and live in (Florence and Turin) as they mature.
Negative, factually incorrect descriptions are vulnerable to litigation. Writers can protect themselves by including disclaimers that their creation is a work of fiction, and any real locations, organizations, and businesses described in it are fictionalized depictions by the author.
Disguised Real Locations
Real locations set in a region where the fictional town is located add touches of authenticity that encourage readers to identify with the characters in the story. Readers who recognize the real place disguised by the author develop an intimacy with the unfolding tale. Also, anonymity wards off litigation.
The Freedom of Fictional Locations
Unrecognizable places can be anywhere, but world-building requires work. Fictional locations can be as varied as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts and Kent Haruf’s fictional Holt, Colorado. One is more realistic than the other, but Rowling’s fiction is fantasy and Haruf’s is more realistic.
Haruf’s fictional town of Holt seems to capture life in the plains of eastern Colorado, where the author grew up. Holt, Colorado functions like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex – an imaginary place based on a real region that the writers were familiar with. However, Haruf claimed his stories could be anyplace. His characters’ experiences were not limited to a particular location or region.
There’s no superior choice of setting. Whether the location is identifiable, disguised, or fictional, the creative details depicted in each context draw the reader further into the world created by the writer.
For writers who grew up or lived in small towns, writing about them comes easily because that life is so familiar to them. Unlike large cities with many service providers, small towns demand more of local residents, who need to become handy at doing things because the service is either not nearby or not easily available. Small towns also are fascinating settings for other reasons.
Readers Can Picture the Setting
A ready-made setting springs up in readers’ minds when a small town is depicted as the background of the story. Their imaginations can work overtime with a few hints to fuel the pictures they have created in their minds.
Appear Quiet, Slow Paced, and Intimate
The pace of small towns does not appear to be stressed and busy like “big city” life, although work life is often hard and demanding. Local folk appear more relaxed, with time on their hands to do quirky things that writers can use to engage their readers.
Small towns have less anonymity. They can be more personal. The environment does not favor privacy because people gossip and are curious about what other townspeople are doing.
Small Town Values Make for Good Drama/Conflicts/Contradictions
Appearances can be deceptive. Under the surface of pleasant small-town life can be a bubbling cauldron of passions, enmities, feuds, and even small animosities. Residents may have larger-than-life emotions: generosity, pettiness, jealousy, vengefulness, bitterness, or some other type of meanness as they appear to have more freedom to be themselves and engage more personally with others.
Towns can also have dull-witted, slow-to-respond characters that appear to reflect the ambience. Small-town moral, ethical, and cultural standards provide a good foil for character development and influences.
Good Backdrop for Subterfuge and Secrets
Lack of privacy offers writers opportunity to imagine characters harboring secrets that add spice to stories. In the less private environment of small-town settings, there are major potential repercussions if secrets become public knowledge and get passed around so “everyone” knows what is going on.
Less Receptive to Change, “Modern,” or Different Folk
The slow pace of small-town life lends itself to acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change. Newcomers are welcome, so long as they are not subversive. Blending in is expected because the confined setting is not conducive to ruffled feathers.
Small Towns Can be Insular, Claustrophobic, Limit Potential
The flip side of neighborliness is the constraining insularity. Career potential and education opportunities are limited. There is a reason why ambitious youth leave their hometowns. For writers, that environment offers potential material for intergenerational and/or interpersonal conflicts.
The small town can be a creation of the writer; for example, Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado is a fictional derivative of three towns. Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” is a reminder that small-town life has been inspiring American writers for a long time.