ScrumMaster vs scrum master: What do you think?

Chris and I just finished the first draft of our book, The Elements of Scrum, and will be publishing a “beta” paperback by February, just in time for Agile Open Northwest, of which we are a proud sponsor.

One of the biggest remaining debates we’re having is over capitalization. After great deliberation, we’ve chosen not to use agile as a noun in the book (e.g., “In Agile we do it this way…” or “Agile is about…”). In my humble writer’s opinion, when we “thingify” agile by hardening it into a proper noun, the term loses a little bit of it of its transformational power. We want help the word to remain an adjective, a powerful, dynamic descriptor, so we’ve chosen not to nounify it. We’ve also decided not to capitalize it.

But what about scrum? Or Scrum? Scrum is already a noun, but is it a proper noun requiring capitalization? And how about “ScrumMaster” vs “scrum master”? Is it ever kosher to un-couple the camel?

Chris has argued in favor of capitalizing Scrum, saying that “Scrum” is to “agile” as “Chevrolet” is to “car.” I’m not so sure. Chevrolet is a proper noun because it is the name of a brand, and thus a proper noun. I think “scrum” is to “agile” as “existentialism” is to “philosophy.” So I vote for not capitalizing it. The jury is still out, and I’m willing to be persuaded.

And then, what to do with ScrumMaster? I am inclined to leave “ScrumMaster” to the Scrum Alliance, which owns the trademark for Certified ScrumMaster. Ken Schwaber used to hold a trademark for the word “Scrum,” but that application is now listed as “dead” according to the USPTO, and I have to credit Schwaber for thinking twice about that one—it seems the generic term ought not to be owned outright by him or anyone else. Besides, think about how much laugher there was when Donald Trump trademarking the phrase “You’re fired!”

Personally, I’d prefer to promote the use of the more modest “scrum master” when talking about someone who performs that role for a scrum team, certified or not. I’m not by any means anti-certification, by the way—in fact I’m one of those dorks who has their ScrumMaster certificate on their office wall because I think it’s kinda cool.

But–and this is key–while I am a Certified ScrumMaster, I am not a scrum master, because I have never served in that capacity on a scrum team, nor would I feel qualified to do so.

I think it very possible that there are lots of people out there who, conversely, consider themselves scrum masters, and not ScrumMasters. We had a student in our last Certified ScrumMaster class who was actually a member of the first scrum team—he found that he needed to be certified for his consulting business, even though no one could possibly dispute his standing as not only a scrum master, but a master of scrum. (He wasn’t at all bitter about it, by the way, but viewed the irony as merely a side effect of scrum’s evolution.)

Wikipedia’s style guide appears to agree with my approach, as does Grammar Girl, who expresses some disdain for what she calls “pride capitals.” I’ll be curious to see what the new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style says once I get my hands on a copy!

What do you think? Is there room in the young discipline of scrum (or Scrum) for the designation scrum master?

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7 Comments

  1. David Parker
    Posted January 13, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Great job summing up the debate, Hillary. There is clearly inconsistency in the marketplace. Some even think “Scrum” to be synonymous with “Agile”. Indeed, these agile ways of working are still young in many organizations. It’ll be funny when we look back in 30 years and laugh about how we used to do things the “waterfall” (not capitalized) way.

    If I could offer one suggestion, I believe you could state your example of capitalization usage in a more accessible way. People may not be familiar with existentialism and might think because it is something new, it should be capitalized. Perhaps you could try “macaroon” is to “cookie”?

    Personally, I think “Scrum” is to “agile” as “Oreo” is to “cookie”. The word “scrum” in lower case is a rugby formation.

  2. Hillary
    Posted January 14, 2011 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks, David!

    Let’s see: I am free to make (and sell) as many “sandwich cookies” as I like, but I may not sell “Oreos,” because that is a brand name. The difference, as I see it, is that I am perfectly free to engage in any and all scrum practices, whether or not I am certified by the scrum alliance, and therefore scrum is a small “s” term.

    Another example: I can teach yoga without anyone’s permission, but I cannot teach Bikram Yoga without being blessed by the Bikram Yoga folks. Likewise, I can be a scrum master without training, but I cannot call myself a Certified ScrumMaster without the piece of paper.

  3. Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I find this treatise from such an erudite author a breath of fresh air. I had many a conversation about these same word usage rules and customs with my Addison-Wesley editor when I wrote *Coaching Agile Teams.* Although I love words and even own an heirloom copy of a 1950s Chicago Manual of Style, I was much less interested in the words being used absolutely correctly. Rather, I sought no barriers between my content and the reader, which I thought might pose challenge enough. On second thought, your proposed use of scrum master may very well have served my purpose beautifully. Darn! Next time…

    • admin
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      Well said, Lyssa. Removing barriers between readers and content should be any editor’s ultimate goal. This is a most agile point of view, too–putting the focus squarely on what serves the reader (ie, the user) best. I’ve found two kinds of grammarians out there in the world: those who love the rules of language for their formal beauty… and the more agile kind who love language for all the wild, cool, fantastic stuff you can do with it. You are clearly the latter.

  4. Joel Bancroft-Connor
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Well I am a project manager, not a Project Manager. This is while I have a PMP (or Project Management Professional) from PMI. So given that I’d agree with referring to is as “scrum master”.

    Joel BC

  5. Dean
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Great article and debate.

    I learned Scrum principles initially from Ken Schwaber’s book ‘Agile Project Management with Scrum’.

    Throughout the book he refers to the Product Owner, the Team and the ScrumMaster. I don’t recall any indication that the ScrumMaster he refers to is specifically a Certified ScrumMaster.

    So in my humble, non-grammerist opinion, since he is credited as the codeveloper of Scrum, I always use ScrumMaster because that is the term/title he defines as that role.

    Cheers.

  6. Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I heartily agree with your Campaign Against Thingification ;-)
    (I have been using ‘reification’ as a pseudo-philosophical term for this…)

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