I and fellow grammarians (visit the Apostrophe Protection Society here) have been ranting and raving about the current inability of the majority of the population to use apostrophes correctly for some time. Limited no longer to greengrocer’s (sic), the possessive has become Teutonicised into a simple ‘s’, minus apostrophe, or the apostrophe is thrust ardently into verbs that have absolutely no use for it and so on and so forth.
This practice seems particularly prevalent on signs (e.g. ‘Starbucks’, where the apostrophe is never used even in general company documentation, despite it being named in part after the character in Moby Dick), where you would have thought that the company producing them would have someone to proofread what they were being paid to compose. See also this pub sign from our local old men’s pub. This particular pub has been on the same site since the 16 century, but I suspect the sign is a much later addition!
However, walking around on days out I’ve started to notice that this isn’t just a modern phenomenon. I’m talking here more about the omission of apostrophes than their misapplication.
Following the pub sign theme into the past, the same thing is noticeable. The sign below (from Carlisle) dates probably from around 1920.
Are we just talking about poorly educated sign writers here? Well, let’s take our search back to 1787, when Mr Twining’s tea company designed the logo that’s still in use today. Their shop on the Strand in London has actually been going since 1717, according to their official website. Surprise, surprise, we see exactly the same thing as we found with the pub signs. Tea may well often be considered more sophisticated than beer, but the purveyors’ use of apostrophes is just as dodgy.
I worry that we’re not being representative of practice throughout the country. These are just two examples from either end of the country and nearly two hundred years apart. A more systematic survey of antique signage needs to be carried out. I shall be taking more pictures as I travel about the country with my fine new camera phone in order to present you with a more balanced view than is available simply through using Google.
However, the point remains that there is evidence that apostrophe abuse is not just a modern phenomemon and the result of a decline in education. It seems to have been entirely acceptable for centuries not to use apostrophes in signs. While we’ve seen examples here where there really is no reason for it, placenames have a lot to do with the disappearance of apostrophes on signs. St Ives, St Albans, Potters Bar, etc – would we be pedantic to add in the apostrophe?