Apostropocalypse Now

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Or should that be apostrolypse? Anyhow, it's imminent, according to Lindsay Johns, "Waterstones: O apostrophe, where art thou?...", Daily Mail 1/13/2012:

So another one bites the dust. Yesterday the high street bookshop chain Waterstone’s announced that, as part of its re-branding, it has decided to move with the times and officially change its name to Waterstones, sans apostrophe. O tempora, o mores! […]

But it’s only an apostrophe, I hear you say. True, but here’s why we should care. You see, it starts with an apostrophe. 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, today the apostrophe, tomorrow the English language as we know it.

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. We must act now to prevent disaster. We must valiantly defend the apostrophe against those who seek to attack her. We must don our grammatical armour and man the linguistic barricades, as an onslaught of grammatical philistinism will soon [be] upon us.

Indeed, the times may become as dark as they were back in the days of William Shakespeare and John Donne, those marauding grammatical Goths whose notorious omission of possessive apostrophes rendered their works almost entirely unintelligible.

Consider the tragic blunting of the finer points of thought in these lines, from the 1633 edition of Donne's Holy Sonnets:

This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint
My pilgrimages last mile; and my race
Idly, yet quickly runne, hath this last pace,
My spans last inch, my minutes latest point,
And gluttonous death, will instantly unjoynt
My body, and my soule, and I shall sleepe a space […]

And when Shakespeare wrote, in the First Quarto edition of Henry the Fifth, that

Euery mans seruice is the kings :
But euery mans soule is his owne.

he doubtless had a relevant point in mind, but his failure to distinguish between plurals and possessives incurably obscured it. He tried vainly to fix things in the First Folio edition, writing that

Euery Subiects Dutie is the Kings, but Euery Subiects Soule is his owne.

But this fruitless lexical fiddling failed to remedy the fatal apostrophical flaw.  Indeed, a fifth column has been spreading subversive rumors that even the most formal spoken English fails to distinguish possessives from plurals (and even from other sources of final sibilants!), though all true defenders of the language will dismiss this scurrilous inanity without a second thought.

Again, consider the barely intelligible dialogue of Murtherer 1 and Murtherer 2 in the fourth scene of the first act of The Life and Death of Richard the Third (as presented in the 1623 First Folio). Their discussion, insofar as we dimly perceive it through the barbarous punctuation, appears to be about killing Clarence; but as Mr. Johns has explained in the Daily Mail, what is really at stake is the assassination of the English language itself:

1 What? are thou affraid?
2 Not to kill him, having a Warrant,
But to be damn'd for killing him, from the which
No Warrant can defend me.
1 I thought thou had'st bin resolute.
2 So I am, to let him liue.
1 Ile backe to the Duke of Glouster, and tell him so.
2 Nay, I prythee stay a little,
I hope this passionate humor of mine, wil change,
It was wont to hold me but while one tels twenty.
1 How do'st thou feele thy selfe now?
2 Some certain dregges of conscience are yet within mee.
1 Remember our Reward, when the deed's done.
2 Come, he dies : I had forgot the Reward.
1 Where's thy conscience now.
2 O, in the Duke of Glousters purse.
1 When hee opens his purse to give us our Reward, thy Conscience flyes out.
2 'Tis no matter, let it goe : There's few or none will entertaine it.
1 What if come to thee againe?
2 Ile not meddle with it, it makes a man a Coward : A man cannot steale, but it accuseth him : A man cannot Sweare, but it Checkes him : A man cannot lye with his Neighbours Wife, but it detects him. 'Tis a blushing shamefac'd spirit, that mutinies in a mans bosome : It filles a man full of Obstacles. It made me once restore a Purse of Gold that (by chance) I found : It beggars any man that keepes it : It is turn'd out of Townes and Citties for a dangerous thing, and every man that means to live well, endevours to trust to himselfe, and live without it.

"The Duke of Glousters purse"? "His Neighbours wife"? "A mans bosome"? To the barricades!


  1. Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding « Sentence first said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 9:27 am

    […] my post, I avoided linking to any (of the many) tiresome, end-is-nigh reactions to this story. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has gone a different and amusing route, ironically playing up the Daily Mail's apocalyptic […]

  2. JB said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 9:29 am

    Gee, the language has been in decline since the 1500s.
    Soon we'll be unable to communicate with each other.
    I won't be able to tell whether I've been invited to the Smith's house or the Smiths house. What if I end up at the wrong party?

  3. MattF said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 9:34 am

    Well, I say good riddance to apostrophes. They are mainly grist for the peeve-mill. In fact, their actual use as inflectional case markers is an anachronism– English disposed of most inflectional markers long ago.

  4. peterv said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    The Observer's resident celebrity therapist, Dr Gerry Mander, this week received a sad letter from Apostrophe about her fate. I quote the letter and the reply.

    Dear Dr Mander

    I'm sick of being dumped, left out, forgotten, mistreated. I've just found out I've been dropped from Waterstone's the bookshop. Now it's Waterstones. Like punctuation doesn't matter or something. I'll probably end up in some discount shop selling "CD's". The indignity!


    Dear Apostrophe

    At least you can still find work. It could be worse. Spare a thought for semi-colon; it owes its existence to the charity of pedants.


  5. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    The passage Mark quoted at first struck me as so silly I wondered if it might be parody. Reading the entire article convinces me it's dead serious. More's the pity.

    I'm all for abandoning the apostrophe, I think. If the distinction between the possessive and the plural were as complicated as Johns would have us believe, then the spoken language would be gibberish, since the apostrophe can only be written, not heard. We'd all go around saying things like, "I'm sorry, did you mean that the hat belongs to Brian, or that there are two Brians in the room? Honestly, I can't enjoy the party until I've settled this matter."

    Johns also seems willfully ignorant of the history behind the use of the apostrophe to mark the possessive.

  6. Andrew said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    I've tried to make the same argument re: question marks but the mavens are havin (havin'?) none of it.

  7. LDavidH said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 11:14 am

    And surely the apostrophe isn't strictly "punctuation" anyway, is it? I thought punctuation referred to sentence construction, and the apostrophe is just… well, an apostrophe. Or have I got that wrong?

  8. LDavidH said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    And to turn the whole thing on its head: Sweden is being inundated by apostrophes that don't belong there. Swedish does not use the apostrophe to mark the genitive -s (maybe because we never use the -s to mark the plural?), but it's not uncommon nowadays to see it used exactly the way it "should" be used in English. So maybe that's the answer to Apostrophe's conundrum: emigration?!

  9. Robert Coren said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    I note that George Bernard Shaw eschewed the apostrophe entirely, writing things like "I dont think shell agree to that" (that's not an actual quotation, merely an illustrative example of Shaw's orthography/typography); whereas Lewis Carroll insisted on inserting extra apostrophes in the negating contractions, arguing that the omission of, for example, the "ll" from "shall not" required representation in the spelling "sha'n't".

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 11:59 am

    Well, well just have to see, as is our wont, wont we? We cant put up with peevish cant.

  11. Ellen K. said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    My thinking is, Waterstone's, with the apostrophe, gives me a clear impression that Waterstone is a surname, probably of the guy who first started it. Write McDonalds instead of McDonald's and you don't lose the impression that there was someone of the name McDonald involved in the founding, because we still recognize McDonald as a surname. But Waterstones is different. Sounds like a strange esoteric name referring to stones in a stream, not a reference to a founder named Waterstone. But, if the company is cool with that, then, hey, their choice.

  12. Jonathan Badger said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    About ten years ago the Canadian doughnut chain Tim Horton's (named after a once well known hockey player) changed its name formally to Tim Hortons. That was apparently to avoid Quebec language laws which claimed that a name containing an apostrophe was in English, as French doesn't indicate possessives that way.

  13. sam said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

    I'm not so sure the apostrophe can find work..

  14. blahedo said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    There was (and I believe still is) a shop not far from my parents' house named "Mikes bike shop", so labelled since at least the late 80s (and they've gone through multiple replacements of the signage, so it wasn't a one-off typo). The standing family joke was that we shouldn't judge, as it might be named after the Mikes (/'mi.kɛz/) family.

    From a rational standpoint (not that that's a great place to be standing, linguistically speaking!), I think it would be ok to lose the possessive apostrophes and restrict them to only being used for contractions (where they actually sometimes aid in deciphering a word). From an observational standpoint, I sense that the omitted apostrophe, especially on business names, is increasingly common, but that's highly anecdotal and, of course, subject to the Recency Illusion.

  15. xyzzyva said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    I'm all for dropping the possessive apostrophe, but cringe at the idea of the ‹s› being stuck to the last word in a possessing phrase. Thus I propose the clitic be left stranded by a space. Thus:

    the King of Spain s hat

    Nobody suggests that the indefinite article should be written either with an apostrophe or joined to the next word in the noun phrase:

    anapple a'day

    anapple aday

    These would be even more ridiculous in a multiword noun phrase. The absence of the prescribed space probably* wouldn't be obvious enough to raise the prescriptivists' hackles.
    All the same could be said for 'll. On the other hand, n't probably should just be treated as part of separate negative forms of the few words (cant, wont, dont, etc.) it actually attaches to.

    *But there's no telling, really.

  16. blahedo said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    Oh! And I almost forgot to mention (although it fits so nicely with my bike shop anecdote): across the street from the school where I work is Johns Memorial Episcopal Church, which seems at first like it must be meant as "John's" or even "St. John's", but in fact *was* named after a bishop whose last name was "Johns". ;)

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

    British usage is already less-punctuated than American, at least in the cases of short forms such as Mr[.], Mrs[.], and Dr[.], where Brits typically omit the periods Americans typically include. But as to Ellen K's concern, there's a striking British usage to use a non-apostrophized -s suffix with surnames that come first in a multiple-surname name of a business. Once you know that pattern, "Waterstones" would be a normal BrEng way of referring to a business whose full and/or historical name was, e.g. Waterstone, Smithers & Frumpingham. So, for example, the major London-based solicitors' firm Slaughter & May is often referred to informally as Slaughters. Actually, informally may not even be the right word because sometimes the usage is formalized, as when the solicitors' firm formerly known as Linklater & Paine officially changed its name to Linklaters. At least for law firm names (and possibly those of e.g. investment banks and accounting firms?) this is a reasonably productive pattern, although there may be phonological-type constraints limiting its applicability to certain sorts of names. But, for example, American lawyers universally use "Cravath" as the short-form way of referring to the NY-based law firm Cravath Swaine & Moore, but I have heard various English lawyers call it Cravaths. I don't know how ancient this pattern is or how to analyze it. Perhaps a plural, which makes sense when e.g. the now-defunct bank once known as Baring Bros. & Co. became Barings, because there was at one time a plurality of individuals surnamed Baring involved with the business. But if there was never more than one Mr. Slaughter involved with Slaughter & May, I don't know where the plural would come from conceptually, not that a singular possessive would necessarily be more inherently plausible . . . .

  18. Richard M Buck said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    When I'm teaching punctuation to adults in my Basic Skills classes, there's an article from the BBC that I often use, because it shows pretty much the full range of punctuation marks that I want the students to be familiar with, correctly used according to current British norms. I did try looking at an article from the Daily Mail on the same subject, but it wasn't as useful to me, because it wasn't as well punctuated; in particular, the BBC article made use of semicolons, which the Daily Mail appears to have binned (or banned?) already.

  19. The Ridger said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

    @JW Brewer: British usage doesn't put a period after a word shortened by pulling out the middle and leaving the beginning and end intact (Mr Dr Lt), only those whose ends are lopped off (Gen. Capt. Maj.) It makes sense, no? Not that sense is usually the driving force in things like this. (We could write them M-r, D-r, L-t, or even M'r, D'r, L't, couldn't we?)

  20. John Lawler said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    Just for completeness, I should point out that Apostropocalypse is a significant term in the new Neal Stephenson novel Reamde.

    [(myl) Indeed. I originally included a long explanation, including an account of the conflict between the earth tones and the brights, but decided that it was a bit too intellectually picaresque even for this often-wandering weblog.]

    As for abandoning apostrophes, Ive already largely done so. Inaudible punctuation marks are strange things.

  21. Robert Coren said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    @Jonathan Badger: Quebec language laws which claimed that a name containing an apostrophe was in English, as French doesn't indicate possessives that way.

    Well, French doesn't indicate possessives with a trailing "s" either.

  22. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    The fix is really easy: drop the apostrophe for possessives and require it for plurals, as this appears to be the trend among the masses anyway (led, of course, by the grocer's).

  23. Jonathan Badger said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    @Robert Coren
    Right, but the point is Tim Hortons (sans apostrophe) isn't a possessive at all. It's just an arbitrary name and hence languageless.

  24. Dan Hemmens said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

    From an observational standpoint, I sense that the omitted apostrophe, especially on business names, is increasingly common, but that's highly anecdotal and, of course, subject to the Recency Illusion.

    Only a single datapoint, but Hatchards – the oldest bookshop in England according to ever-reliable Wikipedia – doesn't use the apostrophe in its name.

    Ironically (or not) Hatchards is currently owned by Waterstones. And was presumably at some point owned by Waterstone's.

  25. Markonsea said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

    I hope no one from the Daily Mail reads this thread – they'll start getting delusions of being a serious paper!

  26. a George said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

    Geoffrey K. Pullum made a good point under his own name when he proposed that removing the strange character made coding of Waterstones much easier. However, the real catastrophy occurred much earlier: when the university bookshop was no longer called Dillon's.

  27. Jimbino said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    Since Pullum closed the comments to his "Waterstones" post, I have to point out here that his infelicitous

    "But there are no signs of it dying out."

    should read

    "But there are no signs of it's dying out."

    illustrating the continuing need for the apostrophe that he disdains.

    [(myl) In the first place, you're simply wrong about the past few centuries of elite usage. See the article on "Possessive with Gerund" in MWDEU. Among other things, you'll learn that about half of all self-appointed grammatical authorities, from Lowth 1763 forwards, have condemned the possessive in these constructions; and elite writers have used both possessive and non-possessive forms of this construction, sometimes in the same paragraph. So (as usual) you're both arrogant and ignorant.

    Second, you've completely misread Geoff Pullum's article. He doesn't "disdain" apostrophes, he disdains certain false and illogical arguments about the need for and value of their use in certain constructions. This failure to understand what someone else is saying is also, alas, typical of you.

    And third, you've made either a bad joke or a bizarre error in suggesting that the form "it's" (which can only be a contracted version of "it is", not the possessive of it) must be used in this case. Please take your hostility, ignorance, and tin ear elsewhere.]

  28. JB said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

    @ Jimbino
    There is some chance of your being ironic just above, but we don't have punctuation for that. The genitive in "its dying out" would not have an apostrophe.

  29. Cy said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

    if your comment is non-ironic, of course, the "it" – replace with "him" or "her" to understand the sentence. Not a genitive construction.

  30. Cy said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

    And of course, your comment, ironic or not, is why GP doesn't let us comment on his posts. This is why we don't have nice things!

    [(myl) It's hard to tell whether Jimbino is genuinely as ignorant and careless as he appears to be, or is just trolling. My impression is that it's not an act, but in the end it doesn't matter. I've been deleting his comments for some time — unfortunately I didn't get to this one before you had taken the time to respond.]

  31. Pete said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    How would Lindsay Johns spell Waterstones' apostrophe as in the title of the first comment (or rather the name of the first commenter)?
    Waterstones' apostrophe is unacceptable because it omits the apostrophe in Waterstone's
    Waterstones apostrophe is doubly unacceptable
    Waterstone's apostrophe is unacceptable because it suggests the apostrophe belongs to Waterstone rather than Waterstone's
    Waterstone's' apostrophe is the only remaining option

  32. Dan H said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 9:21 am


    I've been wondering the same thing. I suspect the "correct" answer – as in the answer Lindsay Johns would give despite it clearly making no sense – is Number 3 ("Waterstone's apostrophe") and if pushed, I suspect he might say something about Mr Waterstone's possession of the apostrophe being somehow implied by or equivalent to its possession by the institution named "Waterstone's".

  33. Jens Fiederer said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    That article certainly got lots of attention, probably more than is justified. I'm pretty sure it was not meant to be taken seriously; the overwrought character of the writing suggests humor to me.

  34. Dan H said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    As the most recent LL post points out, it's written in an overwrought hipster style which suggests humour as a defence mechanism. You say exactly what you mean, but you say it in a sufficiently over the top way that you can later insist you weren't intending anything to be taken seriously.

    There's also other equally outraged articles on the site, including one which states that "punctuation experts" have declared the new name to be "grammatically incorrect" and then goes on to blame the Russians.

  35. Dan T. said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    Since McDonald's was in fact founded by the McDonald brothers (although once Ray Kroc ended up owning the chain, he did his best to make people forget any other founders ever existed), a plural construction would actually make sense.

  36. Mr Punch said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    @ Robert Coren -The apostrophe is an unambiguous marker of non-French language. "Tim Hortons" is just a name, like Simpson Sears. The Quebecois use up their extra ink/pixels by inserting hyphens into the names of people in street names, e.g., "Rue Jean-Drapeau."

  37. Kathryn said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    Hm. I was rather startled, when reading a diatribe against the erosion of proper punctuation, to encounter the sentence "How sad that yet another business chooses to blow an uncouth raspberry in the face of grammatical convention?" Surely that wasn't intended to be a question?

    Similarly, "And with them, meaning will be lost and our ability for articulation of the finer points of thought" struck me as a peculiar construction from someone railing against grammatical barbarians. Just to be sure it wasn't sheer ignorance on my part, I ran a Google Ngram search on "ability for" and "ability to," and it looks like my instinct was correct: "ability for" is a flatliner. The phrase should have been "our ability to articulate the finer points."

    I recognize these are examples of a well-known phenomenon, and not necessarily evidence that Mr. Johns is a careless or incompetent writer, and his complaint is about a deliberate choice to omit the apostrophe, rather than mere oversight. All the same, they seem to me to undercut his point. Not that it needed undercutting.

  38. thomas said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

    It might not be too far off topic to mention Vernor Vinge's book "Rainbows End". The title is the name of a retirement home, and one of the main characters speculates on whether the lack of an apostrophe is a grammatical error or a warning.

  39. blahedo said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 4:12 pm


    Or, "Waterstone's's apostrophe"?

    @Mr Punch "The apostrophe is an unambiguous marker of non-French language.":

    What? I mean, I expect rationality in law only marginally more than I expect it in language (which is to say, not much), but surely the rule must be more complex than that. Correct French has apostrophes all over the place. "Aujourd'hui, j'aime (mais tu n'aimes pas) l'oignon" is perfectly grammatical (if not particularly sensical) French that would be incorrect without the apostrophes.

  40. diogenes said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    No one seems to care that St Pancras station in London or, indeed, St Pancras Old Church and New Church have no apostrophes or any sign of genitives – unlike the multiple St James's (Older, Lesser, Least-of-all etc). And I believe we write St Vitus' Dance instead of St Vitus's Dance. To my mind, the conventions about which saints take apostrophes, which do not, and which take incorrect apostrophes are very tiresome. And, to be honest, I really could not care less whether there was originally a Mr Waterstone/MacDonald etc….It's the name of a shop, no more nor less.

  41. naddy said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

    What about the "marauding grammatical Goths" that introduced the apostrophe in the first place? Certainly the -es genitive of strong nouns in Old English was spelled without an apostrophe. It must have been illiterates bent on destroying the language that came up with this abomination…

    As in Sweden, there is much whining and moaning in Germany about a resurgence of incorrect -'s genitive spellings. Typically decried as an anglicism, instances of this can be found in the 19th century, well before English may have had a significant influence.

  42. Ed said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    her comparison to Rome is wonderfully inept, given that the Romans built a continent-spanning empire while speaking a language that, in almost all of its uses, was written with neither punctuation nor spaces. good job.

    [(myl) Good point. But Lindsay Johns appears to be male.]

  43. xyzzyva said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    Another way to look at it, Ed:

    The Romans never, ever used punctuation incorrectly.

  44. P.B. said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

    Doesn't the well-known London bookshop Foyles, founded by William and Gilbert Foyle, spell its name this way – "Foyles", without apostrophe, for decades at least?

  45. Dan H said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    Not only that, but last time I checked Foyles had a banner ad on the very article this post is about.

  46. [links] Link salad stays indoors | jlake.com said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

    […] Apostropocalypse Now — Language Log is funny about linguistic peevery. […]

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