The much abused and maligned apostrophe has suffered greatly at the hands of the barely literate. Now, as bookstore chain Waterstone’s has decided to drop this humble piece of punctuation from its store fronts, even the supposedly literate have decided it’s just not required.
Its widespread and inconsistent misuse can lead to misunderstandings and sometimes humorous results, typified most famously by the “greengrocers’ apostrophe.” Superfluous apostrophes in “sprout’s” or “cabbage’s” [sic] used to be a common signage mistake – common until the supermarkets put them out of business, at least. But, in their honour, the supermarkets continue the tradition, with signs in Tesco advertising “mens magazines” and “kids books,” omitting them where they are required.
The reason given by the high street store is that, in a digital age, it is cumbersome and confusing – in other words, when typing in a website address. The excuse is a little paper-thin, as an internet search either with or without the apostrophe brings up their website as the top result. I have to question whether the business they feel they are losing due to this niggardly difference sufficiently outweighs the cost of completely rebranding their image and re-signing their store fronts.
Elsewhere on the high street, mixed messages abound. Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s get it right, Morrisons and Greggs don’t. Ultimately, it’s entirely the choice of the business to decide what it is or isn’t called, just as we pedants have an obligation to point out they are wrong.
Place names are another rich hunting ground for the elusive mark. In 2009 Birmingham city council dropped possessive apostrophes from their road signs and council literature, so the likes of King’s Heath or Acock’s Green became Kings Heath and Acocks Green. They were considerably behind the rest of the world in dropping the pesky punctuation. America dropped them from place names from as early as 1890 onwards, maintaining them in just five locations as of today – in, for example, Martha’s Vineyard.
In its defence is the Apostrophe Protection Society, whose campaign for correct and accurate use began in 2001. Its intended function is to inform, not criticize, those who are responsible for misuse, and a downloadable explanatory letter is available to be forwarded to offenders. I find it sad that it is necessary for such an organization to exist.
As a graphic designer, I daily receive copy for advertising that needs correcting. I need to be sufficiently literate to spot the errors. Aside from spelling and grammatical mistakes, apostrophe abuse ranks highly – from nightclub “DJ’s” to garages that sell second hand “car’s.”
Here at The Camel’s Hump – note correct use – the apostrophe is our friend. It’s such a small, unassuming curve, whose inclusion, omission or misplacement can change the whole meaning of a sentence. For example “The Camels’ Hump” would mean the hump possessed by more than one camel, where “The Camel’s Hump” means the hump owned by just one – a significant difference. It’s so simple to get right and Waterstone’s, a purveyor of literacy, should know better.