The war of the apostrophe

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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25th March, 2013 Leave a Comment

Its an outrage.

An English local authority has upset right-thinking lovers of grammar the world over with its policy of removing apostrophes from street names, to “avoid potential confusion”.

Reports BBC Online: “Mid Devon District Council said its new streets had not contained apostrophes for many years, but the policy was now being made official.”

The famous Times of London, was undelighted, and swiftly drew the editorial pencil from its scabbard.

The punctilious urge to tidy up the language by excising apostrophes from proper names is admittedly found outside Devon and it appears to be spreading. But there are good reasons for avoiding that temptation …

The apostrophe is a punctuation mark that drives out ambiguity. It allows the reader to tell immediately if a word or name is a singular possessive (“Baker’s View”), a plural possessive (“Bakers’ View”) or a plural noun followed by a verb (“Bakers View”).

The apostrophe occupies a small space in print or on signs but performs an invaluable role by its presence, position or absence. There is no more versatile, precise and economical mark in the language. Writers who use it accurately can be sure of being understood. Those who use it heedlessly or dispense with it will, contrary to the aims of Mid Devon’s municipal authorities, provoke disarray where they intend only neatness and comprehension. Mark it well.

Or, as others have put it, notes the Times, “knowing your apostrophes is the difference between ‘knowing your s**t’ and ‘knowing you’re s**t’”.

The cause has been taken up outside England, too. Harvey Morris in the International Herald Tribune explores the current “grammar war”, and surveys the long global history of “skirmishes over the wayward apostrophe”.

And at Foreign Policy, Uri Friedman notes the passions apostrophes can rouse.

In 2009, for instance, the Daily Mail profiled a “punctuation hero” who was accused of being a vandal after he painted a missing apostrophe on a sign near his home (the man also refused to get in the “five items or less” line at the supermarket because the notice should read, ‘five items or fewer’).

That same year, the Birmingham City Council got in a feud with the UK’s Apostrophe Protection Society – yes, the Apostrophe Protection Society – after authorities refused to add apostrophes to the city’s road signs. “I have done my own research into the use of the possessive apostrophe in place names,” one council member declared in defending the decision.

As for the latest punctuation dustup, the Mid Devon District Council’s statement declares that “our proposed policy on street naming and numbering covers a whole host of practical issues, many of which are aimed at reducing potential confusion over street names.” Careful readers will notice that the statement does not include a single apostrophe.

More by Toby Manhire

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