Waterstone’s decision to drop its apostrophe and become Waterstones has caused a predictable media firestorm, as well as leading to some welcome publicity for the Apostrophe Protection Society (and its impressively old-school website).
I’ve recently been working with an educational college who are in the process of rebranding. They were considering dropping the apostrophe from their name and asked what I thought. I advised keeping it, not because I’m an apostrophe hardliner, but because they’re a school and it would inevitably have led to bad PR. For the same reason, Waterstones should probably have kept theirs. As a bookshop, there’s an extra burden of expectation on you to uphold what are perceived as correct linguistic standards.
But I do have great sympathy for them. For all that people are pouncing on it as an embarrassing error, the issue is more complex than that. It clearly wasn't a mistake. They spent time thinking about it and decided to do it anyway. And there are good arguments for doing so.
First of all, look at the first two words in this blog post: Waterstone’s decision. If their brand name is Waterstone’s, then shouldn't I be writing Waterstone’s’s decision? After all, Waterstone’s decision leads to potential confusion – is it the decision of Waterstone’s the company, or Waterstone, the founder?
Secondly, the passing of time can give the lie to once honest brand names. Waterstone’s was Waterstone’s because it belonged to Tim Waterstone. But it hasn’t done for years, so why pretend otherwise? Isn’t it misleading to call it Waterstone’s when it isn’t? Doesn't there come a point where a possessive shop name eventually cuts loose from its founder and rises to the status of a self-contained brand name?
Thirdly, apostrophes have always been awkward buggers when it comes to designing logos and shop signage. The arrival of domain names and Twitter accounts makes the situation worse. If the correct brand name is Waterstone’s, then you are forced into an annoying grammatical error every time you type waterstones.com or @waterstones.
So why not just drop the apostrophe and have done with it? It may involve weathering a brief storm from the nation's pedants, but then you can move forward into a blissful, apostrophe-free future.
For all that, they should probably still have kept it. Partly for the pragmatic reason that they’re a bookshop and it looks bad. But also because it's in keeping with the logo, which has returned to the traditional serif font. It sends out mixed signals to return to your core heritage graphically, but abandon it lexically.
I also admit to feeling a twinge of sadness every time a brand loses its connection with its founder like this. The apostrophe is a nice mark of respect to your brand's history, as well as a useful humanising touch – a reminder that you weren't always a big, faceless corporation.
Either way, Waterstones aren’t the first to face this dilemma and won’t be the last. Apostrophes have always had a troubled relationship with brand names. Boots, Selfridges, Harrods and Clarks have all dropped their possessive apostrophes over the years, while Sainsbury's and McDonald's have kept theirs. (Even these stories are complex – there is an argument that Boots never needed one as it refers to several members of the Boot family. And the McDonald family played a miniscule role in the McDonald's story – it was Ray Kroc who got the business going. You can't help feeling they retain the apostrophe because of the connection with that annoying clown.) Then there are the brand names to which we habitually add an ‘s’ even though one doesn’t exist. We often talk about going to Tesco’s, even though it should always be Tesco. What’s going on there?
Place names are hopelessly inconsistent as well. Is it King’s Cross or Kings Cross? St Andrew’s or St Andrews? Fair play to the US and Australia, who took the pragmatic decision to drop apostrophes from place names altogether (with a handful of exceptions). Rather that than the unsatisfactory mess we have in the UK.
Maybe apostrophes are best avoided altogether when it comes to brand names. A previous post on this blog talks about punctuation in brand names and the inevitably messy results (Yahoo! being the most obvious example). The king of the punctuated brand name is aa”lto u!niversit?y: