Apostrophes in business names and place names

Apostrophes are commonly misused. This attracts pedantic sarcasm, which is unhelpful, and pedantic invective, which is unpleasant. Sentence first will supply neither, but a forthcoming post will take a closer look at punctuation mockery.

Nor will I write in detail about how to use apostrophes correctly (not today, anyway); countless books and websites provide this information, yet confusion continues unabated. Before you read further, you might want to visit my earlier post on the subject. It’s shorter than this one.

Surveying the scene we see widespread addition, omission, and misplacement: contemporary apostrophe usage is wayward and inconsistent. Ian Mayes, former readers editor at The Guardian, blames a mysterious creature called the apostrofly, which the newspaper’s style guide describes as “an insect that lands at random on the printed page, depositing an apostrophe wherever it lands”. Like this:

wtd574

[cartoon by What the Duck]

It can be difficult to predict whether a place name requires an apostrophe – and, if it does, where to put it. The mark’s placement in Queen’s College, Belfast does not correlate with that in Queens’ College, Cambridge, because the latter college was named after two queens. If you didn’t know this, you’re unlikely to guess. If your name is Harker and you adopt it eponymously for your business, is it Harkers, Harker’s, or Harkers’? Well, that depends. Harkers’ is wrong unless you want to indicate a family business, in which case you can expect regular mistakes. Standard English traditionally requires the mark before a possessive s, thus Harker’s, and this is the form I recommend. But the same caveat applies.

There is a trend towards removing apostrophes from business names and place names. This trend may be unstoppable, though it is of course censured by the Apostrophe Protection Society, among others. Confusion and brand simplification are among the reasons for the mark’s gradual disappearance from these domains. A spokesperson for Barclays Bank said of the missing apostrophe: “It has just disappeared over the years. Barclays is no longer associated with the family name.”

Current usage is thoroughly mixed. We have Currys but Sainsbury’s; Dunnes Stores but Supermac’s; Fyffes Bananas but Barry’s Tea; Ballinteer St Johns but St John’s Wood (though not always); Land’s End and Martha’s Vineyard but Toms River and Earls Court. An added complication is that in some cases (e.g. Earls in Earls Court) the -s noun may be a plural noun used attributively, i.e. acting as an adjective and therefore in no need of an apostrophe.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names advises against possessive apostrophes (#1 and #18 here), and there are persuasive arguments for standardisation. Lorraine Woodward has done interesting research into apostrophe use in supermarket names, and into a related phenomenon that she calls the “s-form”, where a superfluous s is added to a supermarket name (e.g. Tesco’s).

Traditionalists might decry this kind of non-standard usage, and cite the sanctity of grammar, but the English language did fine before incorporating the apostrophe, and some of its finest practitioners throughout history used apostrophes in ways that would be pilloried today.

Stan Carey - apostrophe collage, Galway

I took these photos within a few minutes’ walk of one another (click for large size). Each demonstrates mixed use. While I don’t condone faulty and contradictory punctuation, I have no wish to ridicule or criticise these businesses and their signs. What constitutes apostrophe misuse is less clear-cut than you might suppose after visiting name-and-shame-type websites.

Bryan Garner, the lawyer and lexicographer who wrote the excellent A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, believes that increased literacy is the only cure for apostrophe misuse. Robert Burchfield, who edited the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and was not exactly an anarchic descriptivist, offered a contrary opinion in The English Language (1985):

The prevalence of incorrect instances of the use of the apostrophe at the present time, even in the work of otherwise reasonably well-educated people (e.g. it’s wings, apple’s for sale, this is your’s), together with the abandonment of it by many business firms (Barclays Bank, Lloyds Bank) suggest that the time is close at hand when this moderately useful device should be abandoned.

Although I’m not calling for this to happen, I accept that confused apostrophe usage will be with us for a while yet. I’ll continue to write and edit text according to prevailing standards, but should the apostrophe be abandoned in my lifetime, there will be no emotional outbursts.

Languages change all the time, and this change does not derive from grammar books or academic institutions so much as from everyone who uses the language. For better or worse, deliberately or not, some businesses have adopted what seems to me a very Irish solution to the problem.

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23 Responses to Apostrophes in business names and place names

  1. PK says:

    Thats an amusing and enlightening post, Stan. Come and get me Apostrophe Protection Society if you dare.

    Actually, it’s worth noting that ‘apostrophe’ is also one of those weirds (like ‘necessary’ and ‘eccentric’) that you always suspect you’ve spelt wrong even when you know that you’ve spelt it perfectly. No doubt the reason that so many people – second-guessing themselves to oblivion – end up spelling it wrong. We need a Correct Spelling of Apostrophe Protection Society and we need it now…

  2. Grandad says:

    I’m willing to join! ‘Though I’m probably one of the world’s greatest offenders.

    A nice little tour of Salthill establishments? I know my pubs :-)

  3. Stan says:

    PK: I think the Apostrophe Protection Society is an interesting organisation, but its aims and principles oversimplify something that is irreducibly complex. Though I wasn’t thinking of the APS when I mentioned name-and-shame-type websites, it would take a pedant of unusual restraint to visit the APS website’s gallery without cringing at the most egregious examples of apostrophe abuse.

    Since feelings run high among language pedants, I think that if you started a Correct Spelling … Society, you would need security, who would then have to be called Society for the Protection of the Correct Spelling of Apostrophe Protection Society (Society).

    Grandad: Good to see you back – we’ll need you (edit: and your new zoom lens) for the SPCSAPS(S). As for your being one of the world’s greatest offenders, we’ll probably need double agents anyway, so it will help your cover. Yes, all Salthill establishments. I suppose the venue on the bottom left is especially well-known.

  4. Grandad says:

    Don’t worry – I have been snooping around for a while.

    Actually, it was the bottom right that gave it away for me. I spent a happy night or two there making a disgrace of myself……

  5. PK says:

    Grandad: You’re in! Every militant organisation needs members who were once on the enemy side before seeing the err’or of their ways.

    Stan: The Pynchonesque title of the SPCSAPS(S) is in just eight words a milion times funnier than the entirety of Pynchon’s last long-winded novel.

    PK: What you talkin’ bout, Willis? Everyone knows the SPCSAPS(S) is, if anything, Foster Wallacian.

    PK: Shut up, you windbag.

    PK: Okay.

  6. Stan says:

    Grandad: I have happy memories of the Warwick myself. It was a grand spot for a chat and a dance.

    PK: I don’t know about that, but I’m glad it gave you a laugh. Now if you don’t both settle down I’ll have to step in between you, and then where would I be?

  7. Claudia says:

    M’sieur, I read your two posts (and comments) with much attention. I should tell you that I never truly worry about English’ apostrophes. I always put it (in business names, and elsewhere) wherever the spirit moves me.

    I guess that being French, the incredibly sophisticated and capricious ways the apostrophe is used in my language has given me full confidence that I would be forgiven whatever I would do in another language. Ignorance can be a blessing…Now if any French neophyte can tell me where a H is muet ou aspiré, and is able to say le haricot et l’homme instantly, I will start to study seriously the proper use of the apostrophe in beautiful English.

    I’m much aware that your fascinating posts are for perfectionists, not for someone who is still at a stuttering stage.I read them because, no matter the subject, your writing is a lesson by itself. Thank you!

  8. Stan says:

    Claudia: While I think apostrophes deserve care and attention, they do not deserve to be worried about.

    Funnily enough, whether or not to aspirate h is a grey area in some English words (e.g. historic).

    I hope that my posts are not just for perfectionists, since there are not so many of them about! For what it is worth, I think your English is superb; you have a rich vocabulary and your meaning is always resoundingly clear. C’est toujours un plaisir de recevoir tes vos commentaires. (Veuillez me corriger si je me suis trompé!)

  9. Claudia says:

    C’est parfait. Quel plaisir! Merci pour le compliment.Tu aurais pu me tutoyer…

  10. Stan says:

    Parfait? Quelle surprise! Ça fait longtemps depuis que je l’ai utilisé, malheureusement. À cause de ça, j’ai oublié de vous vouvoyer – t’es gentille de me mettre à l’aise. Merci Claudia et bon soir. (Tôt le matin on essaye de finir le film.)

  11. Claudia says:

    Merci de m’envoyer à une autre entrée très fascinante. J’ai presque corrigé ‘on essaye’ pour ‘on essaie’…et puis je me souviens, qu’avec les verbes en AYER, on peut garder le Y, ou le remplacer par I devant le E muet. Cette conjugaison est un peu compliquée.

    Assez de français pour ce coin. Bonne soirée!

  12. Becky says:

    Adding an ‘s to business names happens a lot in Boston, too, and it drives me crazy. I think it makes the speaker sound so ignorant. There’s a pizza place near where I work called Celebrity Pizza, and they answer the phone “Celebrity’s.” It grates on my ears.

  13. Stan says:

    Hello Becky, and thank you for your visit. In an ideal world pizza places would not grate on ears; they would grate only cheese on their pizzas. If the “s-form” bothers you so, I recommend Lorraine Woodward’s The Supermarket s-form, a detailed and fascinating investigation into the phenomenon.

  14. [...] the apostrophantom In previous posts I have mentioned the apostrofly, described in the Guardian style book as “an insect that [...]

  15. Richard says:

    I have enjoyed this discussion and would particularly like to clear up the question of using “‘s” after the name of a business establishment to indicate location. Personally, I think it is correct. Interesting that you had the French dialogue since the word “chez” seems to perform the same function in that language. “Je vais chez Pierre” being equivalent to “I am going to Pierre’s or “Vado da Pierre” in Italian. I would really like to have a definitive answer to this question.

  16. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Richard. The ‘s ending (e.g. “I am going to Pierre’s) is generally correct. However, businesses have been dropping possessive apostrophes from their names for about a hundred years, and the practice is increasingly well established. For example, “Harrods” and “Barclays” do not take apostrophes. There is therefore no one-size-fits-all answer; the question of whether or not there is an apostrophe in a business name must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. With a new or unfamiliar name, it is perhaps best to assume that there is one.

  17. Random667 says:

    I think it would be nice if the rule were changed to only using an apostrophe to replace the missing letter in a contraction.

  18. Stan says:

    Random667: If the world were more organised and uniform, that approach might work, to an extent. But the world, fortunately, is more chaotic than that — though this does mean we have to endure a great deal of inconsistency. Even if the rule were changed, as you propose (and changed by whom, you might wonder), a lot of people would not abide by it.

    Using apostrophes only for contractions would probably solve some problems, but it would retain others and would introduce some new ones. For example, if I write about my cats preferences without using a possessive apostrophe, no one can tell whether I have one cat or more. And if I write about Dickens’s novels, or Dumas’s, or my boss’s demands, is there a reasonable alternative to “Dickenss”, “Dumass” and “bosss”?

  19. [...] been here before — with Birmingham City Council and assorted businesses and place names — and we’ll be here again. A prominent organisation, this time Waterstones, has officially [...]

  20. Michal says:

    It is a well-know fact that languages change, but I’m somehow sceptical to accept changes caused by ignorance.

  21. […] semantic pivot. Its appearances and disappearances can be as random as the peregrinations of the apostrofly. One virgule-shaped fleck on the newsprint in the wrong place, or one greasy spot that […]

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