There are certain companies that I believe to be exemplars in upholding grammatical standards. In the retail world, I’ve always seen Marks and Spencer and John Lewis as examples of such companies.
While I don’t expect other companies to make grammatical faux pas, I’m less surprised when they do. And on the rare occasions when M&S and John Lewis fall short of the mark, I’ve always thought it to be a temporary thing. I imagine someone being berated in Head Office for the error of their ways, and a speedy retraction or correction flying in from left field.
That is, until recently.
In the retail world, companies have recently become wilful in their disregard for English grammar. And I blame the “wear” suffix.
Shops have had signage for a long time directing customers to Menswear, Womenswear and Childrenswear. (The opportunity for parsing this last one incorrectly has made my inner self smile on many occasions.)
All three are fine words. They don’t need apostrophes as they are constructs in themselves. Inserting an apostrophe would necessitate splitting the word into two, which destroys the beauty of mashing up words. Children’swear would be ugly and open to misinterpretation; Children’s Wear is awkward and unnecessary.
But then companies started abbreviating further, having departments titled Men’s, Children’s and Women’s. Except that in creating these shortened department names, they opted to leave out the apostrophes. Their argument might be that the shortened form of Menswear is Mens. I think it’s a weak argument.
The shoe shop Clarks has banished the apostrophe altogether, with sections titled Womens, Mens, Girls, Boys and Babies. In some respects, I admire this clear stance. “We know that we’re flouting the rules, but at least we’re being consistent to allow our branding to be clean.” (That said, their website rather delightfully has an FAQ’s section.)
But I don’t expect this of M&S or John Lewis. Indeed the M&S website avoids the topic altogether by having Men, Women and Kids across their primary navigation.
But I recently discovered that John Lewis wilfully flouts the rules.
This is clearly a decision they’ve made to make their branding cleaner, and it will ultimately quicken the demise of the possessive apostrophe from the English language.
My worry is that if standards slip in areas such as these – where decisions are being taken to actively flout rules – less negotiable rules might also be seen as optional. Without looking particularly hard today in John Lewis, I spotted this:
You say stationary; I say stationery.
And while the one below is slightly more subtle, it would certainly be at best frowned upon by Apple. A MacBook Pro has become a Macbook pro.
I almost expect to be given a fake, non-Apple product. When it doesn’t work, John Lewis will perhaps accept no liability, claiming that the branding was clearly differentiated from that of the genuine Apple offering.