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April 4, 2010 1:50 PM   Subscribe

What's the term for the use of a product name as a singular noun (like iPod), and why do companies do this?

This has been bugging me, but I'd like to understand it or know how to refer to it better. The most obvious instance is Apple, and the word iPod. For instance, on one page:

Use iTunes to fill up iPod shuffle with your favorite songs, organize your music, manage playlists, and shop for even more.

(iPod Shuffle is a singular, ala God, etc)

Get new features that make iPod touch even more fun.


Feed your iPod classic.

(now it's a specific iPod)

The new iPod nano. Now rocking a video camera, a polished anodized aluminum finish, and a larger screen. Also making its debut: FM radio with Live Pause.

(Now a specific singular; they never refer to it as 'The iPod Nano' with an adjective like 'new')

At this point I think you've all identified me as a crazy nitpicker, proceed.

It appears like this kind of marketing is trying to make 'iPod' into a brand and not a device, and just has rather inconsistent lines between when we are referring to the physical object and when to the idea of iPod.

Note that there's also a restriction between two ways of referring to websites; everyone mocks GWB, etc., for referring to "The Google" but how is this less accurate than "Google"? What is the grammatical term for this shift? And how, of course, The Facebook became Facebook.
posted by tmcw to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is it that you think they should use the plural, or that they should be specific and always say "the ipod" or "your ipod"?

I think I kind of get you here, it would be weird to say "use itunes to fill up laptop with new songs" or "get new features for laptop" but "feed your laptop" sounds totally normal to me.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:09 PM on April 4, 2010

I remember a few years ago one of the tech blogs had Apple's style guide for treatment of the iPod product. I've worked for companies which had similar guidelines for their trademarks used in marketing communications. As someone who has been told by countless copywriters that bending grammar or other rules is perfectly OK in marketing communication. There is probably a multipage document at Apple where they discuss what iPod is and how it should be treated. I'd imagine a block of copy with the word 'the' with a big x through it.

Why do they do that? Because someone wanted to do it because they liked it that way. They probably had several meetings about it to gain consensus. Things may have gotten escalated up to Steve Jobs for all we know. And because it is important for Apple to have a single voice in all of its marketing communication, they refer to the book and the book says the definite article is not to be used for iPod.
posted by birdherder at 2:31 PM on April 4, 2010

it's always struck me that the convention of calling it "iPod" rather than "the iPod" or MacBook rather than "the MacBook" is due to the intention of it being a proper noun - i.e., if it were human, you'd have no problem calling it just iPod. you wouldn't walk into a store and expect to see signs that say "Accessories for the Josh" (assuming there was a store that only sold things to people named Josh); rather, you'd see "Accessories for Josh". I have no idea if that's proper, though.
posted by mrg at 2:40 PM on April 4, 2010

Just to help you with terminology, since it looks like you are struggling to find the words to describe what you mean.

All of these terms are singular, but "the iPod" is using the definite article while "iPod" has no article.

The words "the" and "a" and "your" are all determiners.

Normally we don't use the definite article (or the indefinite article, for that matter) when the noun is a proper name. Its definiteness is implicit the proper name itself. The exceptions are:

- when the proper name has "the" built into it, "The Hague", "The Gap", "The Edge".
- (often) when we are referring to one instance of some proper-named thing, e.g. there is a company called CVS, but if I go downtown to get a prescription filled, I go to "the CVS".

So, Apple is branding the name of the product "iPod Shuffle", but if I was going on a trip, I would remind my wife to "bring the iPod Shuffle".

As for Google, it is clear from the website that they have not embedded the "the" as part of the proper name, and since there are not multiple instances of "Googles" anywhere, saying "The Google" is just plain wrong. Same deal with Facebook and similar problem with "Internets".
posted by kosmonaut at 3:11 PM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I meant to add a couple things but I hit "Post Comment" instead of "Preview".

When Apple talks about "your iPod", they are referring to a specific instance of "iPod", i.e. the one that you (theoretically) have.

And in particular, when you use some sort of adjective in front of a proper name, you are now making that proper name into a generic term, and removing its implicit one-to-one correspondence with a single thing in the world. By that I mean:

You say "John" not "the John", but if you put an adjective in front of it, you'd say "you're looking at the new John". Suddenly you NEED to have either "a" or "the". That is because you have now created two Johns, the old John and the new John (even though both don't exist at the same time).

The same thing is true if you are talking about "the new iPod".
posted by kosmonaut at 3:21 PM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think this may have started with the Macintosh. Its predecessor was “the Lisa”, for example, “The Lisa is putting away everything before turning off”. But the first Macintosh said “Welcome to Macintosh”, not “Welcome to the Macintosh”. And so on for “Welcome to Newton, and “When is Pippin going to ship”, through to “iPod”, “MacBook”, “iPhone”, and now “iPad”.

Other companies do this occasionally: “We continue adding more free apps for Zune HD” but “The Zune HD features an easy-to-use touchscreen”, “Watch a Video Demonstration of Kindle”, but “The Palm Pre Plus gives you what you need”.

Wikipedia agrees with the explanation mrg gives above: “The usage of the term ‘Welcome to Macintosh’, and not Welcome to The Macintosh was intentional. In this case Macintosh is a Proper Noun. It reflects Apple’s belief that Macintosh is a sentient being, so she should be referred to as if he were a person”. It doesn’t give a reference for this, but here’s one: “Now I’d like to show you Macintosh in person.
posted by mpt at 6:14 PM on April 4, 2010

If you're particularly interested in examples, Apple's (internal) style guide (PDF) obsessively specifies different use of determiners for almost every product they ship. Just search for the word 'article' in that document, and you'll find things like:

"iPhone In general references, don’t use an article. When referring to the user’s particular iPhone, it’s OK to use your."
"iPod In general references, don’t use an article with iPod. When referring to the user’s particular iPod, it’s OK to use your."
"iMac The names of iMac models can be used with or without an article."
"Mac Pro Use an article before the name."

There doesn't seem to be a huge amount of consistency about it, other than perhaps a general trend for the more 'consumery'/personal products to be treated in the 'proper noun' style, without an article.
posted by chrismear at 5:53 AM on April 5, 2010

Somebody jump in, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the grammatical constructs Apple uses to describe their products would be more common in British or Australian English.

For instance, I know for certain that the phrase "Apple is planning..." would appear in the UK as "Apple are planning...," as corporations are evidently treated as plural collective nouns.

On the other hand, extending those same rules to the products rather than the company itself seems a bit more hazy.
posted by schmod at 11:30 AM on April 5, 2010

"Somebody jump in, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the grammatical constructs Apple uses to describe their products would be more common in British or Australian English.

For instance, I know for certain that the phrase "Apple is planning..." would appear in the UK as "Apple are planning...," as corporations are evidently treated as plural collective nouns."

Correct, in that Brits/Commonwealthians don't use collective nouns the same way Americans do (FPP material, there) but in this case (treating a product name as an actual name) it's unusual (if not downright weird) either way.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:51 PM on April 5, 2010

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