Another apostrophe bites the dust

Posted by on January 16, 2012

The weekly roundup on Friday carries a link to a story about the renaming of a well-known chain of British bookstores. It’s Farewell to Waterstones’s and Hello to Waterstones.

Losing an apostrophe won’t make any difference to the pronunciation, but nonetheless the name change has been greeted with some outrage by some of the more linguistically conservative commentators – the chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society was quoted as describing the change as slapdash.

In proper names, the presence or absence of an apostrophe seems to be somewhat arbitrary. One of the most famous shops in London has always been called Harrods, while one of the most famous supermarket chains is called Sainsbury’s – though of course the URL for Sainsbury’s won’t allow an apostrophe, so it’s sainsburys.co.uk. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities have a St Catherine’s College, but while Oxford has college called The Queen’s College (presumably linked to one queen) Cambridge has a Queens’ College (presumably linked to more than one queen).

On the London Underground, (thanks to John Wells for these) you can go through Earl’s Court and then Barons Court; you need your apostrophe about you at King’s Cross, but not at Colliers Wood or Golders Green.

Given that in the spoken language there is no difference between Waterstone’s and Waterstones, and that there is never any apostrophe-driven ambiguity in speech, I’m inclined to agree with Gwyneth Fox that we might as well get rid of all apostrophes altogether.

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