Why Are So Many London Shops Losing Their Apostrophes?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 19 months ago
Why Are So Many London Shops Losing Their Apostrophes?

The apostrophe is fast being forgotten in modern London. Many shops which used to have it on their storefronts have discarded the punctuation mark. Ditching the apostrophe has been happening for years now, so we decided to look at some London mainstays and when and why they lost theirs.

Photo: Rick Payette under a Creative Commons license


The missing apostrophes this article deals with are all possessive in nature. They indicate a name owning the store. Harry Gordon Selfridge lived life with many possessions. As the TV show Mr Selfridge demonstrates, the man's prized belonging was his flagship store on Oxford Street. By the 1930s, Mr Selfridge was in serious debt to the store because of his luxurious lifestyle, and he was ruthlessly ousted from his own business. Since the store no longer belonged to him, the apostrophe was callously removed.


There's little explanation as to why Hamleys dropped its apostrophe. The firm traded as Hamley's until about 1911, when it started to be referred to as Messrs Hamleys Bros. That lasted until 1920 when it switched again to just Messrs Hamleys and shortly afterwards, it devolved to Hamleys.

It's worth noting that dropping an apostrophe in the early 20th century might not have sparked the same outrage that it does nowadays. The apostrophe was one of the last pieces of punctuation to become part of the stabilised English language. It was a European export, originating in France and making the jump over the Channel in the 16th century. It was then subject to much experimentation and its use changed over time.

By the time Hamleys dropped its apostrophe, it was really just a smaller part of a wider movement. In the same period, playwright George Bernard Shaw was at the height of his career. He famously despised apostrophes, dropping them from all of his plays. So these stores might just have been following the example of the period's literary intelligentsia, which is a solid defence.

Photo: kat under a Creative Commons license


It's difficult to pin down when Harrods lost its apostrophe. In the 19th century, the shop was called Harrod's after founder Charles Henry Harrod. By 1909, it was using the name Harrods' Stores Limited; the "Stores" was dropped in 1920 and the apostrophe disappeared for good at around the same time. However, there's much evidence of some products labelled apostrophe-less long before this, showing that Harrod's and Harrods co-existed for a time.

Harrods is a key example of an ongoing and fascinating trend. Most of the stores which have dropped their apostrophes are high-end, aimed at the middle and upper classes. Some major brands which still have their apostrophes, such as McDonald's and Sainsbury's, are less high-end. The snobbish caricature of the greengrocer's apostrophe — in which an uneducated greengrocer repeatedly misuses the punctuation mark — comes to mind here. It's interesting to find that the upmarket stores are the ones setting a grammatically incorrect example.


Many Londoners will remember this apostrophe disappearing. It only happened in 2012 and ignited a public outcry. Waterstone's was a haven to English literature and, by association, the English language, so rebranding as the grammatically incorrect Waterstones was contentious.

The reasons behind the drop are fascinating. Waterstones claims that dropping an apostrophe was necessary in the digital age. Waterstones's managing director James Daunt said that apostrophes were difficult to incorporate into URLs and email accounts, and that losing the apostrophe made the company more "versatile".

He also pointed out that Waterstone's was a more fitting name when the business was run by its founder Tim Waterstone. He no longer has any involvement and Daunt felt this change represented that Waterstones is no longer run by one person but the "continued contributions of thousands of individual booksellers." Curiously, the same James Daunt also founded Daunt Books, but notice the lack of possessive s or apostrophe in that store's name

So the story should end for Waterstones, but then why does the Gower Street branch still look like this? According to the company itself, this discrepancy occurs because the store has not been refitted since the rebranding.

A thoroughly confusing current Waterstones storefront on Gower Street. Photo: Londonist


We can't seem to find much on when Debenhams ditched the apostrophe (it was founded by a William Clark and William Debenham, so the possessive s is deserving of an apostrophe). We have, however, found evidence that the store doesn't have a complete grasp of how the punctuation mark works.

These are just a handful of stores that dropped their apostrophes. Others include Currys, Stanfords, Boots and Lloyds Bank to name just a few. If you've got any theories as to why the punctuation mark is disappearing, let us know in the comments.

Last Updated 21 October 2016

Paul Brandford

The same has always me about some of London's underground & mainline stations. Why do some have an apostrophe, yet others do not. Could this be pure laziness?


If "Hamleys" is an abbreviation of "Messrs Hamleys Bros" then I can't see why it should have an apostrophe. There's nothing possessive in that phrase - it just means "the Hamley brothers". Or am I missing something?

If it had an apostrophe at all I would guess it should be after the s, as it's referring to more than one brother, e.g. "Hamleys' Store"

What fun this is :)


He's got a point about Waterstone's and URLs. URLs don't have apostrophes, so if customers are okay with shopping at waterstones.com they can probably cope with walking into a Waterstones shop. (Or a waterstones shop if you want to take the argument further.)


English grammar has been going to the dogs since the inception of mobile telephones and social media in my opinion. I'm old school and still use comma's, full stops and a capital letter to start a sentence. I have real trouble sometimes understanding messages sent to me from mobile telephones as some folk just write (in lower case) one word after another and often don't even bother to end neatly with a 'kind regards' and their name... I end up reading the message out aloud to make sense of it! And I agree with Paul Brandford that it's probably pure laziness for the most part. I'm a Londoner born and bred but hadn't actually noticed the missing apostrophes on the various stores probably because they are ingrained in my little grey cells and I've never known them to be any different. I think it would now sound odd to call them Harrod, Hamley, Boot etc etc....and let's not get started on the hotel names, many of which tend to get shortened!!

mark crompton

The new names aren't grammatically incorrect. They aren't part of a sentence. The companies are changing their names. What they choose is arbitrary. Amazon aren't incorrect to name themselves (itself?) after a river to which they are unconnected. It's just a company. Also if the company name is officially Sainsbury's rather than Sainsbury, then for example when its results are issued should they be Sainsbury's's results? The possessive on top of the company name? Looks ridiculous but you can make a case.


As an English teacher I can assure you that the apostroph has taken a travel across the channel. Seemingly the obligatory English lessons from year five onwards have left their trace in German grammar. I'm sorry I can't provide pictures, but the flower shop round the corner is owned by Gaby, an a little outdated girlsname.
Her flowershop in proper German should be: "Gabys Blumengeschäft", but it reads "Gaby's Blumengeschäft" on her sign and shop window.
And this is a major trend: I would say about 90% of all recent German shops founded and where the owners (mostly first) name is included in the firm or shop name uses the English apostroph.
So as you see, it's not gone, it has just travelled a few miles further east...