Friday 13 January 2012

On Waterstone(')s

Another day when the phone doesn't stop ringing, and (once again) all because of the apostrophe. Waterstone's has decided to become Waterstones. In the end I did a short piece on 'Front Row'. I also wrote the following piece for the Mirror, but as they only used 200 words of it, here's the full version, with a couple of extra points added following the chat with Mark Lawson. If you recognize some of the examples, you're right: they appeared in my By Hook or by Crook, making the point that there's nothing new about this story at all.

The apostrophe was one of the last punctuation features to come into English orthography, and it has never settled down. In writing from around Shakespeare's time we see people beginning to experiment with it. It's used to show a missing letter and to mark posssession, but it's also used for plurals and third person singulars in verbs. In the first printing of his plays we find such spellings as fellow's, how fare's my lord, and dilemma's.

Even as late as Dr Johnson, in the 18th century, the system was still developing. There are no longer any plural apostrophes after a consonant, but there are several after nouns ending in -o or -a. In his dictionary we find him allowing such spellings as grotto’s, innuendo’s, and echo’s as well as comma’s, opera’s, and toga’s.

In the 19th century, printers attempted to standardize the system, but they didn't do it very well. They applied the rule about possession rigorously to nouns, but forgot about pronouns, so that his, hers, its, ours, yours, and theirs don't have an apostrophe, even though they do express possession. They banned the apostrophe from plurals, but allowed a number of exceptions, such as after numerals (the 1860's), abbreviations (the VIP's), and individual letters (P's and Q's).

People found it difficult to apply the rules consistently, right from the start. And proper names posed one of the greatest problems. There was a great deal of inconsistency around the end of the 19th century as to whether it should be St Pauls or St Paul's, or Harrods or Harrod's. The fuss over Waterstone's has its parallel a century ago.

To begin with, Charles Henry Harrod was perfectly satisfied with his grocer's apostrophe, when he opened his shop in Knightsbridge in 1849. An advertisement in 1895 for a sewing-machine tells readers that it can be bought from the first floor of 'Harrod's Stores, Brompton'. But as the century progressed, variation crept in. Manufacturer marks on metalware products made for the firm show a mixture of Harrod's and Harrods. By the early 1900s, the apostrophe had largely disappeared. An advertisement in The Times for 9th December 1907 says: '15 acres of Christmas gifts at Harrods'.

The trend affected other firms. Around the same time, Lloyd's Bank became Lloyds Bank. And in 1890 the US Board on Geographic Names made a far-reaching decision, which is still in force: 'Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper geographic name.' Why? 'The word or words that form a geographic name ... change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists.'

You might have thought that would settle the matter. But no. There are hundreds of names with apostrophes in the official US repository, the Geographic Names Information System. These exceptions are administrative names, such as schools, churches, cemeteries, hospitals, airports, and shopping centres. Such names, the Board concluded, 'are best left to the organization that administers them'. That's the crucial point, which we need to bear in mind when talking about the Waterstones case.

The English writing system in Britain today is full of apostrophe anomalies. Lord's Cricket Ground but Earls Court. McDonald's but Starbucks. A website in London has a big heading: King’s Cross Online. Immediately underneath is the heading Welcome to Kings Cross Online. You can see it here.

But even the firms which insist on apostrophes have to bow before technology. The website of McDonald's restaurants is The search engines like their URLs to be as simple as possible. Type mcdonald's into Google with an apostrophe, and you'll probably get 'page not found'. A percentage symbol (%) replaces an apostrophe if it's absolutely necessary.

The Board on Geographic Names identified a crucial point: the rules governing everyday usage no longer apply. Such things 'are best left to the organization that administers them'. That feels right. You can spell your own name or your house name or your shop name however you want, and that's your democratic right. Is it Humphrys or Humphreys? McDonald or Macdonald. It's up to you. If someone came up to me and says my name should be spelled Crystall rather than Crystal I would tell them to mind their own business. And if the name happens to contain an apostrophe, that's a matter of personal choice too. Mr D'Amico can call himself Damico if he wants to.

So if Waterstone's wants to become Waterstones, that's up to the firm. It's nothing to do with expressing possession or plurality or anything to do with meaning. It's simply an identity marker. I hear that the CEO of Waterstones has tried to defend the change on two grounds. He says that dropping the apostrophe suggests plurality - there are lots of the stores. That's definitely not a good defence, for there are not lots of Harrods. He's on much stronger ground when he cites motivation from the constraints of the Internet. Or refers to the trend to make public print less cluttered in appearance - a trend which goes back many decades, and began with the dropping of periods in Mr, BBC, and the like.

It's important to realize that whatever Waterstones does has no immediate bearing on the way we use the rest of the language. An apostrophe is still required in standard written English - whether we like it or not - to make such distinctions as it's vs its, and boy's vs boys', and enough people consider that to be critical to mean that there's still a lot of life in this punctuation symbol. On the other hand, when a prominent firm makes a decision like this, it does reinforce a climate of change, so those whose life depends on the use of the apostrophe are right to feel threatened.

It's impossible to say how long the apostrophe will last. For almost a thousand years of its history, English writing did very well without it. During the 19th century it came to be seen as obligatory, and the rules governing its use were formed. But during the 20th, its role became questioned. Was it really needed? It was sometimes useful in distinguishing meanings, but it seems it could be left out without causing ambiguity most of the time. The electronic revolution provided the evidence, as people voted with their fingers in emails, blogs, instant messages, texts, and tweets, and omitted the apostrophe all over the place without causing any breakdown in communication. The context was generally sufficient to make it clear what the writers meant - and if it wasn't, then an apostrophe was always available to make the point clear.

It's been an awkward time for teachers, who have the task of pointing out to their inernet-savvy students that this is a transitional moment. The old order still rules, and has to be respected. Omitting an apostrophe may not cause a problem in a text message, but it can cause a huge problem in essays, job applications, and other kinds of formal writing. Not because it makes meaning unclear, but simply because it goes against what society considers to be acceptable English. Students have to be taught how to manage this situation, so that they know what's expected of them.

It's the same with spelling. There's never a problem of meaning if we write accommodation with only one c or one m. But it's not acceptable to do so. Standard written English evolved to aid national and international intelligibility. And the rules that guarantee this intelligibility are essentially rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Society judges people in terms of the language they use, and if they break these rules, they must be prepared for a reaction.

But over time, attitudes change. Most of the issues of English usage that caused a furore a hundred years ago have died away now, and the language has changed. It's likely that as the amount of written language on the Internet increases, and becomes more central to our everyday lives, so its norms will become increasingly adopted elsewhere. Punctuation and spelling are likely to simplify, and this may happen to the apostrophe too. This sort of change doesn't happen overnight. Or even over-decade. But over-century, yes.


Mike said...

"But even the firms which insist on apostrophes have to bow before technology. The website of McDonald's restaurants is The search engines like their URLs to be as simple as possible. Type mcdonald's into Google with an apostrophe, and you'll probably get 'page not found'. "

The technical limitation on apostrophes doesn't exist anymore although it's common to refer to the LDH rule for naming (letters A-Z, digits 0-9, hyphen). The original rules for these were set down 30 years ago ( ) when there was no thought of Unicode or other accommodations for representing international character sets.

It's not the search engines which "like URLs to be simple" but more fundamental entities like the DNS. If you like it's the "index" that's the problem and the search engines will find anything in the index. Google will over-compensate and NOT allow you to see an error for an unindexed www.mcdonald' by jumping in to offer

That reminds me of Google's other linguistic over-compensation: translating all language names into the current display language. So for instance you walk up to a hotel's computer kiosk and find that the last user has set the user interface to Hebrew. To reset to English or another language, the average user is left with a list where they have to know what the Hebrew word for English is. They don't think to give a list of native names like "Cymraeg, Deutsch, English, Français, ..."that is understandable to the person searching.

DC said...

Thanks for that clarification. I was really thinking of the kind of discussion which was going on a little while ago where people (in marketing) were talking about the need for 'clean URLs'.

Mike said...

Cleaning out punctuation can of course lead to decidedly non-clean URLS like or :-)

John Bagnall said...

A really informative post—thank you.

"Students have to be taught how to manage this situation, so that they know what's expected of them."

That's the nub of this issue,if not the teaching of English in general, which endless on- and offline debates over whether or not it's "time to ditch the apostrophe" only serve to cloud.

John Cowan said...

Surely grotto’s, echo’s, innuendo’s had apostrophes of abbreviation, being short for grottoes, echoes, innuendoes. The first two are still most common with -oes, though innuendos seems now to be preferred, at least in American English.

Marc Leavitt said...

The apostrophe bedevils everyone. Even if one thinks he knows the rules, and is a careful writer, it often confuses, causing a need to look up a particular case before proceeding. It might be best to simply drop it, and through custom, learn to navigate the occasional ambiguities. But that of course, will only happen if and when that consensus is reached.

Michelle Graham said...

This is the first sensible, and informed, comment I've read on the Waterstones debacle.

I wrote my own, hopefully light-hearted, opinion piece after reading some of the ill-informed comments that were being made. 'Sic! The illiterati are out in force' is at

DC said...

John: Afraid not. The es spelling for the plural was much later. It was a solution adopted as an alternative. And there are of course several words ending in o which used the apostrophe plural that never adopted the es ending at all. It's one of the problem areas in English spelling which arose as a result of banning the apostrophe for plurals.

Chad Nilep said...

The comparison to periods is apt. I routinely write "Mr. Smith" but "the US government". Some spell-checkers flag one or the other as 'errors', but both -- as well as Mr Smith and the U.S. government -- are acceptable to many users. (By the way, the web browser I'm using accepts all four as correct.)

Mike said...

Chad: having been involved in spell-checker technology in a past life, I must "correct" the view that they mark errors. A spell-checker lexicon cannot feasibly hold every word, acronym etc and relies on the user to keep their own lists of words. The checker marks words it cannot match for your attention.

Many word-processors have style and grammar checkers that are based on rules ( which you can usually turn on and off as your preferences require ) and it would be those that mark terminating periods based on sentence context.

American software often uses the Chicago Manual of Style as the basis for such decisions, possibly because there isn't an equivalent published authority with widespread use in other Anglophone countries. I imagine some enterprising person could write a word-processor plug-in to do this if they felt there was a market for it.

Val Rice said...

I'm sorry Professor Crystal that you are obviously not a cricket fan! All cricket lovers know that Lord's is so called because the land was once owned by one Thomas Lord!

DC said...

That's neither here nor there. Harrods was once owned by someone called Harrod. (And I am a cricket fan.)

Unknown said...

One of the most sensible pieces of writing on the topic I've ever read. Bravo, Professor Crystal.

H Stephen Straight said...

From the other side of the pond, I wager that a large majority of the family-name identifiers one finds on houses in the U.S. read The Smith's rather than either The Smiths (plural, to indicate who lives in the house) or The Smiths' (plural+possessive, to indicate who owns the house). When I have asked, people say that this use of the apostrophe designates the plural rather than the plural+possessive. However, I think they'd also write that they were going to dinner at the Smith's, so I tentatively conclude that the form is ambiguous.

Related to this we find not only a punctuation but a pronunciation difference when names end in a sibilant (i.e. an s or a z sound, however spelled). Some Americans will pronounce neither a plural nor a possessive suffix on proper nouns such as Rice, Fox, Horowitz, or Jones. (In writing I have seen dinner at the Horowitz' or the Jones', but not the Rice' or the Fox', so these patterns are not consistent.) This general lack of suffixes on names (though of course not on common nouns such as box or nose) appears to result from a rewriting of the rule that plural nouns do not take the possessive suffix but instead the bare apostrophe (as in having dinner at the Straights'), to apply not only to plural names but to any name that ends in a sibilant. Thus, many Americans would say St James' not St James's and the Jones rather than the Joneses.

KateGladstone said...

Correction: the replecement for an aposrophe in URs. In not simply % — it's %27 — a full table of similar replacements for other punctuation-marks appears here: