Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding

We’ve 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 dropped the apostrophe from its name, sparking outrage from self-anointed protectors of the language.

Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt said: (PDF)

Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling. It also reflects an altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers.

This seems entirely reasonable to me. The fact that it’s a bookseller, of course, compounds the agony for the is-nothing-sacred crowd, who last year worked themselves into a state of pseudo-grief and fury over the non-death of the serial comma, and who now protest this latest insult on Twitter and Facebook and in comments on news websites.

John Richards, of the Apostrophe Protection Society, is predictably unhappy with Waterstones: “You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.” If the quote is accurate, his use of slapdash is itself slapdash: the word means hasty or careless, and I’m quite sure Waterstones are being anything but.

Martin MacConnol, in a sensible post about the furore, points out that Waterstones’ name “is a brand mark, and thus doesn’t follow the normal rules of grammar”. David Marsh at the Guardian says it’s “no catastrophe”. But he recommends carrying a felt-tip pen and Tipp-Ex to tackle public lapses in punctuation, à la Lynne Truss, which sounds like a recipe for hypercorrection and Pedantry Gone Wild.

One blogger, whose identity I’ll spare, lamented the news thus:

So now you know: apostrophes that used to feature in Waterstone’s will shuffle off to reappear in genitive itsas if to spite me. They might also find a niche in the aberrant “s-form” Tesco’s (from Tesco), which Lorraine Woodward studied in her interesting dissertation “The supermarket storm: an investigation into an aspect of variation”.

My favourite reaction was from Waterstones of Oxford Street, whose Twitter account posted the photo below (cropped; source unknown), followed by a series of faux-poignant tweets about the apostrophe’s last day at work with the company. “A victim of rebranding”, indeed.

By the standards of common punctuation marks, the apostrophe has had a short existence bedevilled by instability and inconsistency. As Christina Cavella and Robin Kernodle’s paper “How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe” (PDF) shows, there has always been disagreement and uncertainty about how best to use it.

So no, this is nothing to get upset about, and language is not going to the dogs. The fuss over Waterstones’ dropped apostrophe will soon blow over for all but a few committed sticklers, to be relived next time a big brand or institution puts pragmatism over fastidious punctuation. Best get used to it.

Updates:

Two excellent posts on Waterstones and the use and history of the apostrophe: Michael Rosen explores the politics of punctuation [via]; and David Crystal notes that English writing did fine for almost a millennium without the mark.

John E. McIntyre weighs in at You Don’t Say (subscription). Apostrophe usage is “a mess and a muddle”, he writes, and resolving it all is “a doomed venture”. So we shouldn’t fret over brands and signs and menus but instead focus on our own writing. He concludes with a fine line — “You can’t weed the world, but you can cultivate your garden” — that echoes an analogy by C. S. Lewis I wrote about recently.

In my post, I avoided linking to any (of the many) tiresome, end-is-nigh reactions to this story. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has gone a different and amusing route, ironically playing up the Daily Mail‘s apocalyptic panic by recruiting no less a barbarian than Shakespeare.

Also at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum rejects the argument that apostrophes are needed to avoid ambiguity. He finds it sad and irritating that people

[try] to represent themselves as educated thinking defenders of the English language by mouthing off cluelessly about grammatical topics, voicing allegations about “incorrectness” and “ambiguity” that cannot withstand even a few seconds of thought. There is nothing whatever about the decision on the new Waterstones trade name that relates to grammar or grammatical error at all.

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24 Responses to Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding

  1. johnwcowan says:

    I was riding south on the Harlem Line of the Metro-North Railroad to New York City a few weeks back. I came to the station named Purdy’s, and I was happy. Then I came to Goldens Bridge, and I was sad….

  2. Jonathon says:

    The only thing I really take issue with is this bit:

    It also reflects an altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers.

    I don’t see what bearing any of that has on a grammatical inflection (or clitic or particle or whatever you want to call it).

  3. substuff says:

    Nice article, Stan.

    @Jonathon I too was puzzled by that statement. I kind of get his drift, but really struggle to believe the apostrophe led anyone to think the show was still being run by one very old chap called Waterstone. The power of the apostrophe, eh?

  4. Stan says:

    John: When my school performed Calamity Jane, we were instructed to sing pretty (in the line “The windy city is mighty pretty”) as if it were spelled “purdy”. I was pleasantly surprised by how the word remained the same (yet appropriately different) through an alteration that at the time seemed quite drastic.

    Jonathon: I suppose he means that Waterstone’s suggests an entity, Waterstone, who owns or presides over the business, whereas Waterstones conveys the plurality of the company and its many outlets around Europe. It’s not a strong argument in his favour, but it’s a nuance I think he’s entitled to use — if only because it might help a few doubters to persuade themselves that the decision was reasonable.

    Cathy: Thank you. It’s interesting to compare Daunt’s statement with what someone from Barclays said of its own apostrophe a few years ago: “It has just disappeared over the years. Barclays is no longer associated with the family name.” As you say, the power of the apostrophe! And a brand’s apostrophe is, in some digital contexts, an inconvenience and an irrelevance.

    There is a common tendency to add -s or -‘s to familiar commercial venues, like Tesco(‘)s and ASDA(‘)s in the UK. A local pub named Massimo is usually called Massimo’s — it seems more natural that way. If the book company had originally been called Waterstone, it would inevitably have been dubbed Waterstone(‘)s before long. The likelihood of an apostrophe appearing in this “s-form” would be influenced by such considerations as whether the name ends in a vowel sound or consonant; Lorraine Woodward’s research, linked above, looks at this.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    An apostrophe is fine for he
    Who cherishes confusions.
    Its banishment would set us free
    From peeverys delusions.

  6. Barrie says:

    I expect you’ve seen that David Crystal has now pitched in:

    http://david-crystal.blogspot.com/2012/01/on-waterstones.html

  7. Sean Jeating says:

    Need I mention I am seriously asking?]

    @Marc:
    Is it he or him an apostrophe is fine for?

  8. Barrie says:

    I see that the rating agencies much in the news are bucking the trend. One is ‘Standard and Poor’s’ with a web address of http://www.standardardandpoors,.com. and another is ‘Moody’s’ with a web address of http://www.moodys.com,

  9. Stan says:

    Marc:
    Its banishment might also raise
    the ire of those who fetishize
    these marks, and who accept
    in grammar zero compromise.

    Barrie: I had seen it, thank you, and I’ve added an update above to include links to Crystal’s post and to one by Michael Rosen. More may follow. The widespread (and very visible) inconsistency in brand names’ apostrophe use strikes me as insignificant except to those intent on reading into it signs of plummeting standards, contempt for ‘rules’, society’s collapse, etc.

    Sean: Good question! It’s fine for him; or it’s fine for he who cherishes confusions. Or she or they. But I must look into this further.

  10. I was amused at the end of Michael Rosen’s piece to be informed that “13 people +1’d this” – discuss what role that apostrophe is playing, using one side of the computer screen only.

    Assuming the verb “to plusone” is regular, its past tense would be “plusonned”. So if “+1″ stands for “plusone”, the past tense of “+1″ should be “+1ned”.

    I would suggest that the programmer knew instinctively that “+1ned” would not be immediately understood by readers as the past tense of the newly coined verb “to plusone”, and the apostrophe is meant to be read less as an indication that letters have been left out of the past participle (“plusone’d”) in the manner of 17th century poets (“Thus Hercules for matchless Valour fam’d/With fruitless Blows the fertile Hydra tam’d”), and much more as a signal for how to interpret this jumble of sign, numeral and letter. Without the apostrophe in “+1’d”, there really would be confusion.

  11. Perhaps Tim Waterstone has cloned himself and want his book chain to reflect that he is now legion!

  12. Stan says:

    Martyn: I don’t see why plusone (or plus-one) would double its n in the past tense. If it was pluson, maybe, but the -one ending gives -oned. There’s a good post about the inflection of plus-one and +1 at Motivated Grammar.

    The apostrophe in +1 forms may have arisen naturally enough in the plural +1’s, since there’s plenty of precedent for pluralising numbers this way; for consistency and clarity it made sense then to standardise the set with +1’d, +1’ing, etc.

    Jams: Gulp! Let’s hope he shows some restraint and stops at, say, a dozen Waterstones.

  13. The Ridger says:

    Hmmm. I would have said “for him who…”, with “him” the complement of “for” and “who” the subject of the relative clause.

    But I can accept that “he who” has fused and resists declension.

  14. [...] do assert that the name change was motivated—or perhaps rationalized post facto—by the “altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on t… Either way, I think Waterstones’ dropping of the apostrophe is about as unnecessary, silly, [...]

  15. Stan says:

    Thanks for your input, Karen; I defer to your good judgement.

  16. Alan Gunn says:

    How would you write the possessive form of the original name? Both Waterstone’s’ and Waterstone’s’s look odd. Now that it’s been changed, though, “Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding” looks just fine.

  17. johnwcowan says:

    It turns out that Purdy’s is the name of the railroad station, but the hamlet (roughly analogous to an Irish civil parish, but without definite boundaries or legal existence) that it serves is now called Purdys, thanks to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, a set of interfering buttinskis whose job it is to ruthlessly stomp on all surviving bits of local color. Purdys is named after Joseph Purdy, a local resident whose house (built in 1776) is on the National Register of Historic Places. Purdys is one of six hamlets in the Town (analogous to a barony, but with significant powers of self-government) of North Salem, Westchester County, New York State. Another hamlet, Salem Center, is the supposed location of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters; David Letterman lives in the Town.

    Goldens Bridge is in the hamlet of the same name in the Town of Lewisboro, just south of North Salem. At least some of the signs for the station say “Golden’s Bridge”.

  18. Stan says:

    Alan: Good question. I would avoid double apostrophes and let the (then-)existing apostrophe stand for the additional possessive, e.g., Waterstone’s management. Another option is to rephrase.

    John: That’s the first mention of buttinski on this blog. For that, and for the geographical insights, I’m grateful. I imagine the Purdys/Purdy’s discrepancy is quite common in any English-speaking area. An example I came across when writing an earlier post on apostrophes is St. Johns Wood and St. John’s Wood both being used as official names for the Tube station.

  19. [...] wondered if the apostrophe ever represents a sound. Stan Carey considered apostrophe apostasy and rounded up apostrophic reactions from around the web.  Mr. Carey also explored new abbreviations, as did Ben Yagoda at Lingua Franca (and don’t [...]

  20. [...] Apostrophe apostasy returns to the story about Waterstones’ apostrophe that I recently addressed on Sentence first. I speculate on why people get so upset by trivial [...]

  21. Missing apostrophe in Waterstones’ is nothing in comparison with Reuters in Polish newspapers that deprived this agency from the final “s”. Sad but true. I ceased reading those newspapers.

  22. Stan says:

    An unfortunate mistake, but perhaps understandable given that the company was founded by Tim Waterstone.

  23. [...] street bookseller,” Waterstone’s, decided to forgo an apostrophe and become Waterstones. Stan Carey deemed the decision “reasonable” and rounded up some great reactions. At Language Log, Mark [...]

  24. […] over the world (at least in England) apostrophes are disappearing! Waterstone’s is now Waterstones! That is what happens when you sell the business out to a […]

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