(NEXSTAR) — You’ve heard of Kroger’s, Nordstrom’s, and JCPenney’s. But did you know none of these stores actually exist? But Kroger, Nordstrom, and JCPenney do.
You’ve probably heard someone tack on an apostrophe and the letter “s” to the end of brand names before, or maybe you do it yourself. Ever wonder why?
Online, there seems to be confusion over who does it.Various Reddit threads owe the linguistic phenomenon to regional accents. It’s either something southerners do, something Midwesterners do, or something older people do, they theorize. And in 2021, Pres. Joe Biden was praised (or roasted) for calling the Midwest supermarket chain Meijer “Meijer’s.”
In the early days of the 20th century (and even the late 19th), it was common for businesses to proudly bear the name of their founders and proprietors, showing that the business belonged to them. That’s a possessive.
Some now-defunct department stores that included a possessive were Bullock’s, Foley’s, Goldsmith’s, Marshall Field’s, Mervyn’s, J.W. Robinson’s, Stern’s, and Wanamaker’s. Possessive store names are less omnipresent than they were, but still pretty common, like McDonald’s, Macy’s, Trader Joe’s, Bloomingdale’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kohl’s, and Sam’s Club.
As explained by independent publishing house Hallard Press, the practice was also partially a marketing strategy. “Using the last name of the owner was a strategy to let buyers know the product was of high quality—why else would the owner take the risk of being associated with it?”
Hallard Press said that our brains are so used to seeing store names that end in possessives that we instinctually “fill in the grammatical blank.”
There are so many classic TV shows and 1930s-mid-60s movies wherein you might hear characters talk about shopping at “Woolworth’s.” That would actually be a reference to F.W. Woolworth Company—one of the country’s original department store chains—which officially went out of business in 1997 after 118 years of operation.
Since F.W. Woolworth Company is such a formal mouthful, the stores were often called “Woolworth’s” even by the company itself. Much of their signage, promotional materials, and products advertised peppy slogans for its short name.
Shortened possessive names are still used in everyday conversation. And the practice is so common that legitimate news articles and photos regularly use a shorthand brand name with no mention of its full, official moniker.
Making a business name a possessive can also be a term of endearment. Some grocery shopping Texans feel attached to H-E-B, for example, and like they’re at a local pub or visiting a friend.
Many store names end with an “s” sound without indicating possession, like Publix, Gadzooks, Bealls, Whole Foods, Big Lots, TJ Maxx, and Sears. At Wegmans, according to the company itself, the apostrophe was dropped in 1931 to simplify the logo. The franchise estimates that adding apostrophes would cost over $500,000, making the punctuation edit a cost-cutting measure, too.
And Wegmans isn’t alone. As explained by writer Zoe Yarborough of Style Blueprint for her Grammar Guru column, arts and crafts store Michaels and convenience store Tim Hortons are both possessive, they just dropped the apostrophe.
Some names you likely don’t hear people add a possessive to. There’s no settled science, just speculation about why “Walmart’s” or “Target’s” don’t roll off the tongue. Does it sound like a name? Does it end with a harsh consonant?
Either way, Yarborough explains that adding an “s” isn’t relegated to just one area of the country—or even just in the U.S. “This happens everywhere, my research finds,” the Grammar Guru said. “I read a lot of articles (and their comments sections) about people doing this in the Midwest and the Northeast, and even in the UK and Australia. It seems this particular slip of the tongue slips all over the English language.”