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; 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: 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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A known unknown in the past future of publishing

February 7, 2011

In the 1970s the independent book publisher André Deutsch sold 40% of his eponymous company to Time-Life. Diana Athill, who edited for André Deutsch, wrote a wonderful memoir Stet: An Editor’s Life in which she described the experience as odd and comic: “They made no attempt to intervene in any of our publishing plans. And they drove André mad.”

Athill recalls an early meeting that purported to establish the mutual benefits of the deal. Puzzled by the corporation’s apparent altruism, she asked what was in it for them.

After a fractional pause, a gentle blast of pure waffle submerged the question, and I was left believing what in fact I continued to believe: that they didn’t know. Shrewd predatory calculations might be underlying all this, but it seemed unlikely. ‘Can it be,’ I asked André after the meeting, ‘that they are just silly?’ To which he answered crisply: ‘Yes.’ I think he had already started to wonder what on earth he was doing, but couldn’t see how to back out of it.

Despite their lack of interference, Time-Life naturally expected progress reports, every so often asking André Deutsch for details about, say, their publishing plans for the next five years. But given the unpredictable, even chaotic nature of independent book publishing – and maybe especially given the nature of the firm being asked, and of its owner – this request was also seen as a bit daft.

At a party in New York, Athill met the person who functioned as the link between the two companies, and she inferred that Time-Life just wanted some figures to satisfy their accounts people: the figures didn’t even have to make sense. Relaying this insight to André made him “even madder. It was their silliness that was getting to him, not their asking for information.” How then to respond? Athill quotes from accountant Philip Tammer’s letter to Time-Life:

What we will be publishing in five years’ time depends on what’s going on in the head of some unknown person probably sitting in a garret, and we don’t know the address of that garret.

I don’t know what Philip Tammer looks like – Athill describes him as “the dearest, kindest, most long-suffering, most upright and most loyal accountant anyone ever had” – but I can imagine his expression of consummate deadpan as he composed this reply. Ask a silly question…

Deutsch was, to his relief and delight, able to buy the shares back a couple of years after selling them. He talked about the experience, and a good deal more, in an interview with Naim Attallah.


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.


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.