Wal-Mart. Walmart. wal*mart.

The company is inconsistent, but the AP isn't

One style change the Associated Press has made recently is to decide that the giant discount chain based in Bentonville, AR, be known in all uses as Wal-Mart. The corporation’s name, after all, is Wal-Mart Inc.

But to look at a store is to see this:

In other times, that sign has read “wal*mart” and “WAL*MART.”

But in The New York Times, it is now always “Walmart,” even though, its stylebook says, “the company officially preserves the hyphen in its corporation documents.”

In the past, both the AP and The Times tended to use “Wal-Mart” when speaking of the corporate entity and “Walmart” when speaking of the stores, which could lead to the appearance of both “Wal-Mart” and “Walmart” in the same article. That confusion is one reason for the AP’s change, as well as Wal-Mart’s own inconsistency in the use of the hyphen, the AP’s stylebook editors said.

Wal-Mart is not the only brand whose name and logo differ, of course. J.C. Penney Co. is jcpenney on its stores; The Exxon Mobil Corp. sells gas at ExxonMobil stations; Geoffrey LLC sells merchandise as Toys Я Us, which the AP calls Toys R Us and The New York Times calls Toys “R” Us. (Oh, and that “Я” has an asterisk in its top.)

You have to wonder why companies want to confuse its customers this way.

The AP stylebook, and many other style guides, have opted out of (most) cutesy names that look odd when not rendered in a company’s logo and typeface. Thus, AP says, “Do not use symbols such as exclamation points, plus signs or asterisks that form contrived spellings that might distract or confuse a reader.” (We’re talking about you, Yahoo! and E*Trade.)

The advice in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is similar:

Generally render a name as the company does; consult the company website. But avoid fanciful use of punctuation or other nonalphabetic characters, which seem more like marketing logos than ordinary names: Yahoo, not Yahoo!.

If a company’s common rendering differs from the version in its formal incorporation documents, generally use the name more familiar to readers: Walmart, not Wal-Mart.

The Chicago Manual of Style is bit more opaque, dealing more with capitalization than with instances involving unusual punctuation or different renderings.

There can be no rule about how to deal with companies whose products say one thing and whose corporate names say something else. Think of this more as a case of when you address someone as “William” and when you would call him “Bill.” One is more formal than the other. In other words, let your publication’s style and the context guide your usage, though you should try to be as consistent as possible for your readers’ sake.

Yes, this seems to go against some earlier advice, in which we said: “Follow the lead of the movie, book, institution, etc., even though it may look goofy to you (and your audience). It’s their name.” In those cases, however, there was no disconnect between uses in different environments, except as mistakes.

As long as we’re talking companies, it’s also a matter of style whether to use a comma before “Inc.” and its ilk, as well as whether to abbreviate “Corporation” and “Company,” and whether to use periods in expressions like “LLC” or “P.L.C.” For those who use multiples of those, as Gannett Co. Inc. does, well, as long as you spell it right, they probably won’t object if you leave off a designation or two.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.