Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding

January 12, 2012

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.


Weasel words and skunked words

June 13, 2011

Time for a recap of my recent writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Near the end of April, I took a look at “skunked” words. This is a term I came across first in Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage; it refers to words whose meaning or usage is so disputed that using them is likely to bother or distract readers. Among these words are enormity, fulsome, and “Hopefully disinterested”:

Words are slippery. Their meanings can mutate and multiply, differing according to where and how they are used. The word defence, for instance, will suggest different things to a sportsperson, a psychologist, a lawyer, a doctor, and a military strategist. Our relationship with a given word depends on our history with it and what it connotes for us. Yet for the most part we can communicate straightforwardly with others, since context supplies information that reduces the chances of misunderstanding. Now and then, however, the signal turns to noise. [more]

May was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of business English, so a few of my articles fall under this category. My particular focus is on business jargon; like any other kind of jargon, it is inevitable and not inherently objectionable. However, it can also degenerate into near-meaningless gobbledygook (a phenomenon I’ve written about on this blog before). “The business of gobbledegook” is a short assessment of this kind of language and the problems it can generate:

When we communicate in a business environment, obscure jargon is an occupational hazard. Given how specialised are many industries and work environments, it’s natural that people will use a certain amount of terminology that won’t always make much sense to outsiders. The trouble is when this language is used in inappropriate contexts, or when it becomes so vague and jumbled as to be impenetrable even to its target audience. [more]

That article includes a few lines of parody-gobbledygook; next came a full article of it, “Critical learnings, going forward”, which I’ve already introduced here. A competition was held to translate the text into more meaningful English, and the submissions were a delight to read.

My follow-up post, “Weaselly recognised”, continues the theme by examining how weasel words, jargon and periphrasis are sometimes used to euphemise awkward facts. It explains why this is not helpful, and stresses some of the benefits of plain language:

Plain English is a frank and straightforward style that does not lend itself readily to expressing longwinded nonsense and hiding unpleasant facts. It is well suited to conveying meaning clearly and without guile, thereby showing a measure of respect for people’s intelligence, feelings, and capacity for dealing with difficult truths and situations – not “challengeful reality-based outcomes, going forward”. Our brains do a lot of hard work decoding language into sense; in business, it doesn’t pay to multiply this workload. [more]

Tucked in among these posts is one about the word friend and how online life has influenced its meanings. “Your flexible ‘friend’” describes how the word

straddles the digital and physical environments in a way that reflects its great flexibility and complex usage. Over the last few years its use online, particularly in social networks, has popularised the transitive verb friend . . . along with derived forms like defriend . . . and unfriend. . . . We all adapt to this shifting terrain in different ways, redefining friend and recategorising friendships to suit our habits, purposes, and feelings. And although our online activities have brought new dimensions to the word friend, the disputes and discussions about what it means are just a new phase – and perhaps an amplification – of age-old debates. [more]

This article was also published on Ragan.com under the title “The many meanings of ‘friend’”.

You’ll find all my articles for Macmillan Dictionary Blog on this page.


Critical learnings: a competition

May 25, 2011

There’s a competition that might interest you on Macmillan Dictionary Blog today. I’ve written a parody of corporate communication laced with buzzwords, management jargon, ridiculous metaphors and assorted gobbledygook. Here’s an excerpt:

Parties affected downstream are encouraged to utilise their forward thinking hats and realign their tool belts to the non-ongoing contract situation within a short timeframe totality. We anticipate dynamic new overarching metrics of holistic staff wellbeingness at the end of the day. Surfing where the waves are should galvanise a global blue-sky modality that will roll out and trickle down the Monday mood mountain into the value valley.

The challenge (and the fun) for readers is to translate the post into a more comprehensible form of business English. You can do it in a few sentences, or – if your productivity drivers are optimised – in more satisfying detail. Push the editors’ imagination buttons, and you could win a Macmillan dictionary of your choice.


On freelance editing

January 3, 2011

I was contacted recently by Nancy Strauss, a consultant who specialises in online communication. Nancy blogs for The WM Freelance Writers Connection, and in this capacity she asked if I would be interested in doing an interview about freelance editing. I was, and I did, and the interview was published in two parts over the holiday period.

In part 1, I describe some of the types of editing work I do, recommend some books for freelance editors, and offer advice to people considering a career in freelance editing. It’s very general advice, as you’ll see below, partly because I became an editor by an unorthodox route. Here’s an excerpt:

Read everything. Read dictionaries and detective novels, instruction manuals and old poetry. Read great writers especially. Be sensitive to narrative structure. Stories are everywhere, awaiting readers and listeners. We make worlds from tiny tales, and even the driest prose hinges on a ‘someone’ doing something (e.g., driest prose hinging). Whether you’re editing fiction or non-fiction, find the characters performing the actions and build paragraphs and plots around them. Readers will thank you for it.

In part 2 of the interview, I talk about training, marketing, blogging, and communicating with clients; I also discuss when and why a writer might want to hire an editor, and when they might not. In the former case, here are some thoughts on the ‘wood-for-trees’ problem:

If you write, you’ll recognise the difficulty of assessing your work accurately beyond a certain point. We end up too close to our text, emotionally and intellectually. Mistakes and weaknesses become invisible through overfamiliarity. If we abandon it for a while, we gain a measure of critical distance from it, but never quite enough; and taking breaks is time-consuming. An experienced pair of eyes, fresh to the text, will spot things the writer won’t.

I hope the interview is helpful and interesting to writers and general readers, and maybe even other editors. I must say I found it personally instructive and enjoyable. Nancy’s questions encouraged me to reflect in more detail on certain aspects of my work that I had previously thought about only infrequently.

You can read the full interview here: part 1; part 2.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man-word

November 4, 2010

‘Man-words’ have become very popular in recent years. These are terms like man flu, mancession, mancation and mancessories. Jumping on the man-wagon, I’ve written a short piece about them for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, called ‘Watch your manguage’. Here’s an excerpt:

the Urban Dictionary lists hundreds of man-words and man-phrases, such as man hug, man-girlfriend, man-tourage, and manbroidery. An initial m can be enough to manify a word – as in mandals, a contraction of man-sandals; mirdles, which are girdles for men; and Movember, a November-moustache charity event (though its m comes from moustache rather than man). There’s a related boom in bro-words, like bromance and bro-ordinate.

In the article, I look at the subcategory of man-brands, link to some expert coverage of the man-word phenomenon, and ponder what it all might mean. I also coined a couple of new man-words along the way – it’s hard to resist, once you’re immersed in them – and I was delighted to see more appear in the comments. If you can’t mendure the manticipation any longer, you can read the rest here.


New editing website

October 13, 2010

In the right-hand sidebar you’ll see a new link to my editing and proofreading website, which I recently updated. I’ve rewritten the text and added more testimonials. It’s in a provisional state but I’m happy enough, for now, with its content and appearance. Both are plain!

If you have observations, suggestions, or criticisms to make about the website, feel free to share them in a comment below, or by email. Requests for editing or proofreading are also welcome, and can be made by email.

I’m very grateful to James for his generous technical help and advice. He speaks computer languages that are forever beyond my comprehension; English must remain my specialty.


Words on a wire

August 30, 2010

We think of balance as a good thing, associating it with poise, equilibrium, evenness and harmony, as stability in unpredictable circumstances or as a healthy mix of disparate elements. It’s a versatile metaphor. We try to balance our lives by living a balanced lifestyle, holding balanced views and following, on balance, a balanced diet. We balance work and play, overtime and downtime, business and pleasure. Mostly business: we balance our books, accounts, loans, budgets and balance sheets.

If you lose your balance, you can always find it again (or claim to). This is rebalancing. It might seem like something you couldn’t do too much of, but apparently you can. The word itself has become very popular recently, at least according to the crude graph below and the subjective evidence of my eyes and ears.

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Balancing and rebalancing are common in economic policy at corporate and national levels. There is constant rebalancing of growth, power, trade, budgets, assets, and priorities. Most of all, there’s rebalancing of economies and investment portfolios. Wikipedia says the latter means “bringing a portfolio of investments that has deviated away from one’s target asset allocation back into line”. There’s a more straightforward definition here. As far as I can tell, it reflects a desire to make as much money as possible.

On a large scale, such activity can require a rebalancing of the workforce. This might be an ordeal for affected workers and their families, but rebalancing makes it sound like something no well-balanced person would resist or condemn. No surprise then that the word is also popular in the context of rights and the law. A quick newspaper search showed recent hits for rebalancing rights, rebalancing the statute book, rebalancing the Human Rights Act, and rebalancing the relationship between citizen and state.

The happy connotations of balance and rebalance make them attractive as euphemisms. In Now That’s What I Call Jargon, RTE broadcaster John Murray writes that rebalancing “tends to be trotted out when a company is selling a loss-making business in order to halt the drain on its finances”. He notes that it “can also be used by companies that are laying off hundreds of employees but cannot bring themselves to say it in so many words”. Tim Llewellyn, a writer and broadcaster formerly with the BBC, described balance as “the BBC’s crudely applied device for avoiding trouble”.

Web of synonyms from VisualThesaurus.com

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Balance as a metaphor is grounded in our experience: human functioning depends on balance in physical and physiological ways. The first meaning of balance I learned as a child was the ability to not fall over as I stood up (or tried something more elaborate); this ability is vital to many sports. As kids we spin in circles for the fun of losing our balance. Inside us, balance is just as critical — without it we might become unbalanced. Our biochemical and psychological equilibriums are dynamic, complex and finely tuned; they depend on appropriate ratios between different hormones, habits, signals, systems, organs and unconscious strategies that can support or hinder one another.

We know that our bodies perform great balancing acts, but sometimes we need to be reminded, or encouraged to help. Many health and lifestyle companies, especially alternative health providers, promise to balance or rebalance certain connections they consider primary, such as those between mind, body and spirit, between the brain’s hemispheres, the body’s energies, yin and yang, and so on. One massage training centre describes rebalancing as “a unique psychosomatic body mind treatment system incorporating technical precision with an artistic meditative approach”. Which is all very well, but whether it translates into a good massage is anyone’s guess.