The Death of the Apostrophe

by limebirdmike

In something that many of you may have missed in the news recently, British book store Waterstone’s has officially dropped the apostrophe from its name. No longer Waterstone’s, instead now Waterstones.com, on the bbc website, managing director James Daunt said the amendment was a “more versatile and practical” spelling of the name for the digital world.

Waterstones

While I can’t help but think there is a certain amount of business sense in the move, I admit a small part of me does cringe slightly at the “dumbing down” of the English language. This isn’t about Waterstone’s (or is that Waterstones.com), so much as it’s about the general relaxed attitude society seems to take towards matters that are, let’s be honest, important.

Ok, so the English-lover inside me disapproves of the move, but what about the writer in me? This may surprise some of you, but the writer in me actually approves!

As some of you may be aware I currently work as a writer for a PR / marketing company. My day-to-day work typically involves writing articles and press releases for the trade press. As a bit of a stickler for grammar and punctuation, one of my biggest bugbears in my job is company names, and more specifically, names that imply plurality (when company names are singular), names that start with an intentional lower-case letter, and names that either don’t have an apostrophe, but should, and names that have an apostrophe, and possibly shouldn’t. Obviously I can’t mention any of the companies in question, but trust me when I tell you, trying to write about a company such as “Waterstone’s” is far more difficult than it may sound!

To prove my point, consider the following sentence:

So in conclusion then, a part of me does approve of Waterstone’s new name.

Note: “Waterstone’s” is singular. Replace the word Waterstone’s with a simple word such as “cat” and you will see that from a technical perspective, my sentence is actually incorrect, even though it does perhaps “sound” correct. Because Waterstone’s is in fact singular this also means you have to be careful when using “is” and “are”. Even with all my experience writing using names such as Waterstone’s, I admit I did have to go back and change my introduction from “Waterstone’s have” to “Waterstone’s has”!

Hopefully from this perspective at least, you can appreciate that perhaps the name change is a positive step. The only issue that remains then is naming the company Waterstones.com. From a business perspective, this is a very good move – it reminds the public of the company’s online presence, and furthermore, gives a “modern” edge to the Waterstones.com brand. I leave you then, on this: If you’re a major book retailer, and you’ve decided to drop the apostrophe from your name, naturally you might look a little stupid; after all, grammar is, in a sense, your domain. Add the “.com” however, and you have the perfect solution – you can drop the apostrophe, and by adopting the grammarless style of the URL, you still point back to your old name.

So, is this the future for retailers? A part of me thinks it is. Sad as it may be to see the old stalwarts of the high-street move away from their roots, in 20 years’ time there’s a good chance there won’t be a name on the high-street that isn’t a URL.

A guess it’s just a sign of the times.

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21 Comments to “The Death of the Apostrophe”

  1. Ah great post Mike, I was going to do something on the this other day, but I completely forgot. D’oh! Hmm this one was a tricky one for me. I feel like I need to know the background of the store to be OK with this.

    By this I mean, was the person who started it called Waterstone or Waterstones… or was a just a random name? Was it originally it was called Waterstone’s Book Shop, and they dropped the last bit to make it shorter, hence keeping the apostrophe? Anyways, I can see why they have done it from an aesthetic business point of view as the apostrophe doesn’t make all that sense on its own.

    Anyhoo, I’m still not sure what I think about it. When you say Waterstones.com, will that be on the front of the stores too? Oh I’m so confused…

    Beth out…

    • Yes, Waterstones.com will be on the front of their store, so technically they’re changing their name to literally “Waterstones.com”, though to most of us it will still be “Waterstones”.

  2. It’s a good point and I completely get where you’re coming from, but like me, I think you’re already distinguishing between the rules of grammar and the no-rules-apply world of brand. Sadly brands and corporate identity do seem to be licence to make up words and grammatical rules and the only change is that they subsequently become accepted and introduced to the Oxford Dictionary!

    But in line with Beth’s point is Waterstone’s technically correct anymore? I.e. is there a Mr or Ms Waterstone who can claim ownership of this brand or is it held by shareholders? Further, if there are multiple Waterstones, who own this brand then surely the apostrophe should be at the end?

    Now on to people who say Tesco’s. Tesco is a brand with no ownership inferred there should only be an s at the end when talking about multiple Tesco stores!

    • Well the store was started by Mr Waterstone, so technically I guess it should be “Waterstone’s”. As far as Tesco goes it did used to be Tesco’s, but they also removed the apostrophe!

  3. Ah, tis’ but too true that our long dear friend is on its way out in the realms of marketing… I’m a linguistic mischief-maker in an avant garde manner in that I believe language can be contorted against established convention to please the writers aims and needs, rather than that of the audience. Which is not a good thing in a lot of ways. But I have jolly good fun.

    Waterstone(‘)s has gone for this new concept for mass appeal in terms of its marketing strategy. This goes against my belief that language and all its tributaries such as punctuation, should only be chopped and changed for the whim of a writer. There is nothing expressive, nothing beautiful about this. It is aesthetically redundant and dead.

    I agree with Beth & Sally – their points are also right up there too.

    I’m just a lovelorn ‘artiste’ awash in the mire of form and function.

    Loved this post, I do enjoy a jolly good romp into the world of punctuation abuse.

    LimebirdCat

  4. I am so grateful to see this post — this is my bugbear too, especially “its” and “it’s”. I find it very hard to believe that this was never taught to any of those people in school, or that they have all decided to forget the lesson. In addition, I mourn the disappearance from the English language so many simple words; “You’re welcome,” is now “No problem.” Thanks for your clear and concise post on the changes going on in English punctuation and grammar.

  5. Well, I certainly hope that the rest of the punctuation doesn’t abandon our language. Where would I be without my beloved semicolon? Although some languages offer no punctuation at all; Hebrew doesn’t even have vowels, let alone periods and the like.

    Interesting post. Thanks for the heads-up!

    • A nice point. I couldn’t live without my parentheses.

      For clarity, I feel compelled to point out that there are no vowel LETTERS, but there are vowel sounds. Things printed for those learning the language do have vowel markings (I forget their name).

      For those of you who didn’t know, I think it should be added that Latin was originally written with out punctuation, no upper/lower case, the letter “u” was written as a “v” most of the time, and (at least sometimes, but I’m not sure how often) there were no spaces. Ugh!

  6. Great post! As a freelance writer for 13 years, I’m not in favor of the random misuse or elimination of apostrophes OR commas (sentences can get rather confusing with misplaced or missing commas). Lots of businesses drop their apostrophes on their URLs, and that’s completely understandable. I still don’t think they need to carry that through to their brick and mortar sides. However, I also agree that the day seems to be looming where the only bookstores we’ll be able to peruse will be online, which is what really saddens me. Nothing can replace a good afternoon browse through a bookstore, where the discovery of new titles and authors doesn’t count on proper keywords, but rather a simple, relaxing wander around. ::sigh:: Not to mention spontaneous conversations with other book lovers and running into friends….chat rooms and forums aren’t quite the same. There’s a warmth to all of that which no URL can duplicate.

    Sorry, I digressed. Regardless of what impact URL names have on business names, I still think proper apostrophe use in writing is important. It just doesn’t make sense not to. Just my humble opinion on the ever-changing English language, of course!

    • Thanks for the responses everyone! As someone who has some experience in these things, you can’t actually have apostrophes in URLs, so they have to drop it there *anyway*. Having said that, I wonder what you all think about this idea that naming *anything* as a posessive? I know it’s sort of an old tradition, but in the modern world, I’m not so sure it works…

  7. I agree with everyone, this was a great post Mike. The apostrophe has always been a problem for me, in particular the s’. Maybe another post could detail exactly when to use that…it’s very confusing. I do appreciate this, thanks for posting 🙂

  8. Does collective and singular nouns come into this as well? Waterstone’s in Lyme Regisone, shop or Waterstone’s everywhere, are not putting books out. ? My grammar is terrible, so posts like this I find really useful.

    Jim

  9. Can we talk about why the British leave off the period that belongs after Mr. or Mrs. ?

    Does it have something to do with the newfound aversion to apostrophes?

    If anything, it is Americans who should be leery of the apostrophe, having the tendency to stick it unnecessarily into plurals and whatnot. I remember being 12 and a new pizzeria opening up in my neighborhood – really big, nice place, had big video screens back when that was sort of a new thing, all spanking shiny and new. And its flashing neon sign in the window: PIZZA’S. Put my teeth on edge.

  10. I’m a tad confused, but I do agree with the change in one sense and disagree with the other sense. I’m not familiar w/ the company but the internet has made marketing for any company with an apostrophe in the name rather difficult. I still like the name I want for my company though, if I ever decide to pursue it, it will have an apostrophe, just not at the end….Okay now I’m more confused and I’m explaining my own concept! Hehe pretty sad…anyhow, great post Mike! Thanks for sharing.

  11. I’m thinking I’m the only person who would say things like, “Walgreenses,” or “Waterstoneses” (when speaking only) to make the clarification. Such as (imagine me talking):

    I had to go to three Walgreenses to find it.

    Similarly for the posessive:

    Walgreenses stance on the issue is silly.

    I sorta run the letters together like: Walgreenziz.

    I’m thinking I totally made that up to deal with this, but it’s what I do.

    • In a sense I think what you’re saying is completely correct. If a shop is called Waterstones, then if you’re going to visit it you’re taking a trip to, as you say, “Waterstoneses”. It’s all very confusing though I must say… :p

      • Confusing, yes. Fun to say, also yes.

        Also, it can make little kids laugh, and if you’ve got those, it’s worth the confusion.

        Then again, I’m known for liking things that are difficult to say (I am awesome at reading Fox in Sock). 🙂

  12. I don’t know why, but I just thought about the Lord of the Rings and the little consternation at the beginning when somebody mentions the Proudfoot (I think that’s it) family. They call them the Proudfeet, and somebody replies, “Proudfoots.”

    Then I thought about this post and thought I’d share.

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