January 16, 2012

Outrage continues over Waterstone’s dropping its apostrophe


Outrage continues unabated, even intensified, in the UK over the fact that the country’s biggest bookseller, Waterstone’s, decided to become Waterstones last Tuesday.

As we reported in a MobyLives story at the time, Waterstone’s — sorry, Waterstones’s — head, James Daunt, announced the company was returning to its original font, Baskerville, but not its original punctuation: it was dropping the possessive apostrophe. Daunt said the company was doing this because of — what else? — digital reasons. “Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling,” he said.

There’s something to that, as a glance at the url to this page will attest — God knows where that apostrophe went — but it’s not enough for a lot of the people who gave the language its name.

For one thing, notes Richard Lea in a Guardian commentary,  “Daunt certainly seems a little grammatically confused when he argues that the new name reflects the ‘continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers’ —  anyone for Waterstones’?”

At Prospect Magazine, David Skelton says of Daunt’s explanation,

This, of course, is arrant nonsense. The march of the digital world, as Daunt puts it, is no excuse for misuse of the English language. Indeed, in many ways, the digital world has given written English a new lease of life through the proliferation of blogs and online journals.

Waterstone’s decision screams of a scramble for credibility.  It’s rather like the middle-aged classical music fan who suddenly develops a taste for hip hop and trance in order to impress his kids.

Meanwhile numerous Waterstones customers have been lambasting the company on Twitter, in surprisingly emotional tweets, such as one saying, “Somehow this breaks my heart. First the Oxford Comma, now the Waterstone’s apostrophe…leading me to ask, what next?”

But it’s John Richards, the chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, whom we quoted in our earlier report, who continues to lead the charge, saying, “It’s just plain wrong. It’s grammatically incorrect. If Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s can get it right, then why can’t Waterstones. You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English,” according to a Telegraph report.

Philip Hensher, however, in another — and fascinating — Telegraph column, says “in fact, it’s not quite as simple as that. Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s do indeed preserve the apostrophe on their shopfronts. Their websites’ URLs, however, are without it. A web address could, I suppose, include an apostrophe. But if it did, it would turn away anyone who thought the shop might be called Sainsburys’ or Sainsburys. Better to omit the apostrophe.”

Still, Hensher takes issue with Daunt nonetheless, and with those who say it doesn’t really matter:

And yes, these things do matter. Correct usage has become more, not less important with the advent of the computer. We are all submerged by messages by email from institutions and companies, some perfectly genuine, others not. It’s striking that many fraudulent “phishing” emails contain mistakes in language, misspelt words and misplaced apostrophes. Most reputable companies, even now, make a point of rejecting applicants for jobs who can’t write a correct English sentence, and it is a fair bet that any letter pretending to come from a bank which says “inconvinience” or “our customers security” is emanating from a crook. If you weren’t paying attention in school, and don’t know whether a phishing email is written in correct English or not, then let’s face it: you deserve to be robbed.

Perhaps the most dramatic reaction came from Lindsay Johns in a Daily Mail column. Johns says of James Daunt’s explanation, “I find that a poor excuse,” and goes on to say,

Next, people will think that it is perfectly acceptable to omit a full stop at the end of a sentence. Then the comma and the semi colon will be unceremoniously dispatched to the grammatical dustbin.

And with them, meaning will be lost and our ability for articulation of the finer points of thought. Our language will be diminished, not augmented.

In short, he concludes: ”Make no mistake. These are dark times for the English language. The barbarians are at the gates. Right now, marauding grammatical Goths are encircling our linguistic Rome.”

What do you think?


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives