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Britons want to know what possessed officials targeting apostrophes

A district's proposal to lose the punctuation mark in street signs sparks highly grammatical declarations of outrage.

March 27, 2013|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • A street sign for St. Paul's Square in Birmingham, England, drops the apostrophe.
A street sign for St. Paul's Square in Birmingham, England, drops… (David Jones / Associated…)

LONDON — It was a modest proposal to ditch the humble apostrophe.

Who'd've guessed it'd cause such a fuss?

Not the officials in southwestern England whose idea it was to abolish the smudgy little punctuation mark from street signs. Condensing King's Crescent to Kings Crescent and turning St. Paul's Square into St. Pauls Square would help avoid "potential confusion," they said.

But the proposal has stirred up a hornets' nest here in the land of the Queen's English. Unveiled this month, the suggested ban immediately sparked highly grammatical declarations of outrage and angry vows of apostrophe defense from critics throughout Britain. They accused the Mid Devon District Council of massacring the language and dumbing down civic life.

"It's just sloppiness," said Charles Noon, a former longtime council member who's chagrined by his successors' proposal. "It sets a bad example from people who should not be setting a bad example."

One language maven asked if a "war on commas" was next. Even the local member of Parliament felt obliged to weigh in with his two cents' worth, tweeting: "Mid Devon Council bans the apostrophe to 'avoid confusion'…. Whole point of proper grammar is to avoid confusion!"

On Thursday, officials are scheduled to revisit the debate, clearly bewildered by the national uproar they caused. The leader of the council, Peter Hare-Scott, has indicated that he will oppose any move to junk the apostrophe.

"Personally I'm not happy about using English that's incorrect and don't find this acceptable," Hare-Scott said in a wry but also rather harassed-sounding statement.

Defeat of the ban would no doubt be greeted with rejoicing by guardians of good English. (Not to be mixed up with the Guardian newspaper, which was once so notorious for typos that people nicknamed it the Grauniad.)

But some sticklers fear that while they may win this battle, they're in danger of losing the war. For in truth, Britain's relationship with the apostrophe has been under severe strain for years.

Misuse of the unassuming punctuation mark abounds in this country. Grammarians bemoan the plague known as "grocer's apostrophe," the depressingly common sight of signs in shops advertising "tomato's" and "carrot's" for sale. Government agencies, businesses and charities constantly omit apostrophes or add them unnecessarily in their leaflets and posters, such as one flogging "men's short's."

Here in London, signs can't seem to decide whether it's Regent's Park or Regents Park. (Technically, it's The Regent's Park.) The London Underground boasts a stop called Earl's Court but another called Barons Court.

Last year saw a similar apostrophe scandal when the venerable bookstore chain Waterstone's announced that, forthwith, it would be known as Waterstones, a "more versatile and practical" name in the Internet Age, executives said. (Web addresses give apostrophes the cold shoulder.) Incensed customers begged the company to reconsider, arguing that if McDonald's could stick with its apostrophe, so could the bookseller. Waterstones was unmoved.

To be fair, the Mid Devon council is not the first local authority in Britain to mull a moratorium on apostrophes. The city of Birmingham decided to leave out the punctuation mark on new road signs in 2009, without much ado.

Also, apostrophe neglect and abuse are not confined to this side of the Atlantic. It took 110 years for Children's Hospital Los Angeles to insert the apostrophe into its name, in 2011. Hospital officials blamed the original omission on "a faulty typewriter key."

Noon, the former member of the Mid Devon District Council, isn't predicting catastrophe over apostrophe atrophy. "I don't think it's going to shorten my life or destroy my pension or anything like that," he said.

But, he added, correct use of the apostrophe isn't simply nitpicking; the tiny punctuation mark can make an outsized difference, as in this sentence: "If you're late for dinner, you can eat your son's."

"If you don't put the apostrophe in 'son's,' it's cannibalism, isn't it?" said Noon, the father of two English teachers. "It's only when English is clear and precise that you can get the message across properly."

Exasperated Mid Devon officials say their proposal for street signs would only formalize what has already been happening, without comment, in their district for years, with apostrophes being left off of new signs and phased out from some road names. This has made for some anomalous situations, such as Bakers View (apostrophe excised) in the town of Newton Abbot, a street that overlooks Baker's Park (apostrophe intact, in honor of Samuel White Baker, a 19th century explorer).

Grammatical kerfuffles aside, Mid Devon is an otherwise quiet corner of England, a district of lovely countryside where any apostrophe banished to early retirement could do a lot worse.

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