This morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 revealed another forlorn attempt to hold back the tide of linguistic change. This time it’s from the Apostrophe Preservation Society, peeved at plans by book chain Waterstone’s to remove its possessive apostrophe.
Ostensibly for simplicity and ease of use online, the move by Waterstone’s is clearly a piece of excellent PR too, such is the national harrumph it has provoked. Steam is already pouring forth from ears around the country, via Mail and Telegraph pieces and no doubt throughout the Twitterverse. (Somehow the Telegraph manages to use this as an excuse to winkle in a pic of Cheryl Cole but hey, that’s serious broadsheet journalism for you).
But in the comments threads there’s a sense of national ‘meh’ too. It’s well known that the apostrophe confuses people. Not because people are getting more stupid, but because the apostrophe is confusing, especially around plurals (the famous grocer’s apostrophe) and the possessive ‘its’ vs. ‘it is’ (It’s a great day for this company. Its results show a marked…).
It’s arguably incorrect to knock the the ‘s’ off Waterstones even if Mr W doesn’t own it any more. But remember that this didn’t bother Reuters, who realised decades ago that to name itself Reuter’s, after its 19th-century founder Paul Julius Reuter, would look ugly and awkward. If a linguistic convention is good enough for one of the world’s greatest news agencies, it should be just fine for a high-street bookstore.
Reuters, like Waterstones, knew that the change made things simpler and more elegant, without altering any meanings. Resisting it is more a matter of conservatism and taste than a question of grammar. I’m not suggesting that no-one should care about apostrophes any more – but we should worry about one’s that really have potential to muddle our meaning’s.