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February 11th, 2009

Capitalizing Realtor / to shutter / leadership was assessed as having mastered ...?

by Barbara Wallraff

Daniele Cherniak, of Cohoes, N.Y., writes: “My local newspaper capitalizes the word ‘Realtor,’ even in cases where the word is not part of a title or the name of a business or other organization. It does not similarly capitalize the names of other occupations. Is there some reason why ‘Realtor’ would be treated differently?”

Dear Daniele: Yes. “Realtor” isn’t just a job title; it’s also a service mark. A service mark, as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office explains it, “is the same as a trademark, except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product.” So in a sense, Realtors are comparable to Coca-Cola or Pepsi. (Sorry, Realtors -- that was flip. I know you have to have been accepted into the National Association of Realtors to qualify.) The term that’s comparable to “cola” is “real-estate agent.”

Jeff Prescott, of La Jolla, Calif., writes: “I doubt if a human being has ever used the verb ‘shutter’ in a sentence. But I see it in newspapers a lot. Please tell me why papers use such language.”

Dear Jeff: Do you mean uses like this one, in a recent headline in The Daily Sound, of Santa Barbara, Calif.: “Oil field north of SB officially shuttered”? That is awfully peculiar, inasmuch as oil fields don’t have shutters. I don’t see how even figuratively they could have shutters. The mental image the headline conjures up is absurd. “Shuttered” means “closed,” and “closed” would have been a much better word there.

But I have no objection to this headline from the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News: “San Francisco garden show may be shuttered.” (At least, I don’t object to the way it’s worded. How sad if there are no future San Francisco garden shows!) “Closed” would be unclear here. An un-shuttered show closes every night. I can’t think of any ordinary word that would be clearer than “shuttered.”

The language of newspapers in general and headlines in particular has all sorts of idiosyncratic conventions. These are mainly the result of a need to cram as much meaning into as few words as possible. That’s the explanation for “shutter” -- and a good one -- it seems to me.

John McNair, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “I am on staff at the Canadian Army Staff College. Our course reports contain statements about our students’ ability in different areas, notably leadership, decision-making skills and communication skills. There are many opinions about the opening sentences of the three relevant paragraphs of the report. For instance: ‘During the course Capt. X’s leadership (or decision-making skills or communication skills) was assessed as having mastered (or exceeded or met) the standard.’ Can one ‘master a standard’? Some claim the sentence is grammatically incorrect.”

Dear John: Yes, that sentence is a mess. The problem isn’t the grammar, though. What it says doesn’t quite make sense. A “standard” is a level of achievement or skill, not the skill itself -- so, no, one can’t master it. “Exceeded” or “met” would be OK. Better yet, because it’s clearer, would be to make Capt. X the subject of the sentence, like this: “During the course, Capt. X was assessed as having met the standard for leadership.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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