Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Apostrophe gate

When Waterstones announced its decision to drop the apostrophe from its brand name, who would have thought such an innocent little punctuation mark could cause such a hullabaloo?

Along with the expected Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells letters bemoaning the slipping of today’s grammatical standards and prophesising the beginning of the end, there were many who came out in support of it. And many of those were from the design and creative industries.

That’s because apostrophes can cause all manner of problems for those of us within the industry ­– graphically, typographically and linguistically ­– and let’s face it, we all know that we like to make up our own rules. In the world of branding there aren’t really any grammatical rules, after all, brand names don’t have to be real words, but they do have to be memorable, distinctive and ownable.

So, when using apostrophes possessively, brands fall into two camps of those who do, such as Sainsbury’s and Levi’s and those who don’t, including Boots, Barclays and now Waterstones.

Now, I have to admit I was sad to see the apostrophe disappear from Waterstones, both from a historic point of view as I’ve grown up with Waterstone’s and from a grammatical point of view as the misuse of apostrophes does send me a little loopy, but I do understand Waterstones’ decision. If it had kept the apostrophe, should this have been Waterstone’s’ decision? Now, that just looks messy but if you opt for Waterstone’s decision in this instance, are you meaning the founder or the company? See the problem? This must have caused endless discussion for Waterstones’ branding and comms teams!

Today, Waterstones is no longer a single bookshop belonging to Tim Waterstone and is a well known brand name in its own right, and then of course there’s the problem of apostrophes in web addresses, emails and Twitter accounts. After all, if companies want their brand name to resemble their URL, all punctuation must go. So, the decision was probably made for a number of reasons, including design and usability, and it’s also a good example of our evolving language. But does this mean we can live in an apostrophe free world?

Well, no. If this typographic tadpole disappeared from use, I guarantee we’d all struggle (for example, that last sentence would have the word ‘wed’ in it) to decipher the right meaning straight away. So, let’s for a moment take a look at the apostrophe’s raison d’etre, which is to show omission or possession.

But this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. When people aren’t quite sure where to use apostrophes, they opt for the scattergun approach, dropping in this innocent little symbol every time the letter ‘s’ ends a word, for plurals, possessives and contractions alike – we’ve all seen the infamous grocer’s apostrophe in apple’s and potatoe’s. 

Apostrophes showing omission generally don’t tend to send people into a tizz (well, aside from some of those selling fruit and veg) but those showing possession often confuse and confound, especially when the name or noun ends in –s.

So, here’s a very quick guide for those who feel they need a helping hand (and for those of you who don’t, simply skip to the end to see some great examples of apostrophe use gone horribly wrong).

With personal names that end in –s, add an apostrophe plus another s when you naturally pronounce an extra s if you said the word out loud: Dickens’s novels are still popular or Charles’s brother has joined the army.

However, this one is a bit tricky as whether you need the additional s is a matter of style rather than grammar, and even the experts don’t seem to agree (typical!). So, it’s best to be guided by clarity and ease of pronunciation here. The main thing to remember is to be consistent, pick one and stick to it.

This really does highlight the importance of having brand guidelines or a style guide for your business, as it helps provide uniformity in copy and style across all touchpoints and audiences (and it means you don’t have to worry about which one is correct).

With personal names that end in –s but aren’t spoken with an extra s, just add an apostrophe after the –s: The court dismissed Bridges’ appeal

Plural nouns that end in –s

When a plural noun already ends in -s: add an apostrophe after the s: The mansion was converted into a girls’ school.

Plural nouns that do not end in -s

When a plural noun doesn’t end in –s: add an apostrophe plus s: The children’s father came round to see me.

Other useful info

You don’t need to use apostrophes to form plurals or abbreviations such as PDFs, nor to indicate decades. We all know that the 1980s (or ’80s when abbreviated) was a terrible decade for hair, but a great one for cheesy tunes.

It’s vs its

This one deserves a little section all to itself, as it often throws a spanner in the works:

it’s – showing omission: ‘it is’ or’ it has’

its - to show possession: ‘the dog wagged its tail’

And finally

Ok, school’s now out and for your entertainment we’ve included some of our favourite examples of the grocer’s apostrophe below. Why not join in the good fight for the apostrophe and send us your own examples or any misspellings you’ve seen that are just too good to be true?

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