Apostrophe catastrophe

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Outrage reigns in Britain over the decision by the Birmingham city council to stop using apostrophes on its street signs; the AP story, by Meera Selva, is here.

Some highlights from this version (the story has been widely reported):

England's second-largest city has decided to drop apostrophes from all its street signs, saying they're confusing and old-fashioned.

But some purists are downright possessive about the punctuation mark.

It seems that Birmingham officials have been taking a hammer to grammar for years, quietly dropping apostrophes from street signs since the 1950s. Through the decades, residents have frequently launched spirited campaigns to restore the missing punctuation to signs denoting such places as "St. Pauls Square" or "Acocks Green."

… Councilor Martin Mullaney, who heads the city's transport scrutiny committee, said he decided to act after yet another interminable debate into whether "Kings Heath," a Birmingham suburb, should be rewritten with an apostrophe.

The expected reaction came from "grammarians", who turn out to be the people from the Plain English Campaign (about which we've written on many occasions, most recently in connection with fewer vs. less):

But grammarians say apostrophes enrich the English language.

"They are such sweet-looking things that play a crucial role in the English language," said Marie Clair of the Plain English Society, which campaigns for the use of simple English. "It's always worth taking the effort to understand them, instead of ignoring them."

In the Telegraph story, another voice is heard:

John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, said: "All over Birmingham, and in other cities, teachers are trying to teach children correct grammar and punctuation.

"Now children will go around Birmingham and see utter chaos."

Here in the U.S., we've been managing without apostrophes on most street signs (and maps) for some time, and often without periods and commas as well. Does utter chaos surround us? Well, no; the system is that place names don't get apostrophes, while other expressions of possessive form do get them, and contractions get them as well. The AP story gets this wrong: the first sentence of the story ("On the streets of Birmingham, the queen's English is now the queens English") doesn't have a place name, and neither does the headline ("Its a catastrophe for the apostrophe in Britain", with a contraction). The head also suggests that the ban on apostrophes covers all of Britain, while in fact it's only Birmingham that's affected.

I have no particular stake in the choice between preserving the older system for the use of apostrophes (and so on) on signs and maps and adopting a sparer system of punctuation (omit needless marks!). I wouldn't even insist that punctuation practice must be consistent; apostrophied and apostrophe-less names could simply be seen as optional variants. 


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