Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

No apostrophe? Catastrophe!

sprovost@thetribunenews.comJuly 30, 2013 

Steve Provost

Once upon a time, we got it right.

When I was growing up, I remember watching Saturday morning cartoons and seeing an animated piece called “Jerky Turkey,” which predated my arrival on this planet by nearly two decades. In the Thanksgiving-themed short, a pilgrim goes hunting for a turkey, who outsmarts him in much the same way Bugs Bunny outfoxed Elmer Fudd.

Periodically, a bear strolls by carrying a signboard that reads “Eat at Joe’s,” and the two eventually decide to do so. But the bear turns out to be the smartest character of the bunch: Both the turkey and the pilgrim end up inside his belly. (The bear himself turns out to be Joe.)

I could have told you Joe was one smart bear long before the cartoon’s surprise ending. Not only has he written a sign in English — and how many bears can do that? — he has also managed to put the apostrophe in the right place.

That’s more than can be said for many modern restaurants and retail establishments.

In the nearly seven decades since Tex Avery directed this classic Warner Bros. cartoon, retail America has succeeded in almost entirely dispossessing us of the possessive apostrophe. Where does it go? When do we use it? If you’re looking for clues, don’t look to companies such as Walgreens, a store founded by Charles R. Walgreen Sr. that has since abandoned its apostrophe.

Back in the day, customers would have said to one another, “I got a great deal at Walgreen’s drugstore” — the drugstore belonging to the aforementioned Mr. Walgreen. Somewhere along the way, though, people dropped the word “drugstore” from this and similar sentences and started saying, “I got a great (or maybe a lousy) deal at Walgreen’s.”

Then, we dropped the apostrophe, too.

I’m just not sure why. Is it because Walgreen himself departed this life in 1939 and, in consequence, no longer owns the store? If so, it doesn’t make any more sense to say, “I’m going to Walgreens,” because that would indicate you’re going to see more than one person named Walgreen, not a store owned — or formerly owned — by one person by that name.

Even as a kid, I’d announce to my parents, “I’m going over to Jeff’s house,” or “I’m going to Jim’s” — with the apostrophe. I know, I know. You can’t verbalize an apostrophe. But I’ll swear to my dying breath that I saw one in my mind’s eye as I uttered these sentences.

Can an 8-year-old kid (or a cartoon bear, for that matter) really be smarter than a big corporation?

Well …

Mervyns dropped the apostrophe. So did Gottschalks. Both are now out of business, but I wouldn’t presume to suggest that their scandalous negligence concerning the poor apostrophe had anything to do with their downfall.

They’re hardly alone. The trend appears to have spread to Great Britain, where a major book retailer founded by Tim Waterstone is, as of 2012, no longer known as Waterstone’s, but rather as Waterstones. Such an egregious omission is bad enough for a department store, but it’s the next thing to sacrilege for a retailer who deals in the printed word. One can only presume that Waterstones no longer sells books but, instead, has gone over to selling stones found in the water.

Then, there are a few oddballs. Macy’s, for example, still has its apostrophe but renders it as a star, so it looks like Macy*s. I guess that amounts to an apostrophe with an asterisk.

Thankfully, some retailers are still possessive about their apostrophes. Spencer’s Fresh Markets is one. Trader Joe’s is another.

This latter was founded by a certain Joe Coulombe, who later sold it to a billionaire named Theo Albrecht — a man wise enough to keep the apostrophe intact. I seriously doubt he was a bear, but I’ll give him this: He was smarter than the average retailer.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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