Anger over apostrophes punctuates Devon calm

You’re so possessive: what’s wrong with these signs? Does modern usage need to be consistent?

The road signs of a rural county in England will no longer use apostrophes: too difficult to employ correctly, says the council, and too many complaints about mistakes. Should we care?

One campaigner for correct grammar has called it ‘an apostrophe apostasy’: the moment when Mid Devon council announced it might formally decide to abandon using the punctuation mark on street and town signs.

Traditionalists accused the local authority of leaving inhabitants and visitors in the dark about whether, for example, the street name Kings Crescent means it has been named after one monarch or several.

Others were more laid back: the council already has an unofficial policy to leave out the apostrophe, and says only three place names in the district still have one. Two other UK councils have already drawn criticism for making the same decision, some of it from teachers who say it is hard to train students in grammar if the world beyond the school gates regards the rules with contempt.

Last year the bookshop chain Waterstones decided to remove the apostrophe on its shopfront, arguing that in the age of the internet search, simplicity would help customers – and in any case the business no longer belonged to its founder Tim Waterstone. Some customers reacted with shock, and were comforted only by the fact that other businesses, including Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s, continue to retain their possessive apostrophe in brand names.

But consistency has been notably absent in 20th century signage. Earl’s Court station on the London Underground has an apostrophe although the area it serves is usually spelled without one, and Barons Court is never apostrophised because it was named after a developer’s rural estate, Baronscourt.

All this leads some linguists to feel that the apostrophe’s days as a widely recognised mechanism for bringing clarity to written English are numbered.

Catastrophe

Originally, the apostrophe was used in English only to signal the absence of letters, or elision of one word into another: a classic example would be ‘it’s’ rather than ‘it is.’ But during the Renaissance, printers, who needed rules for the texts they worked on, used it to show which phrases denoted that one noun belonged to another: St James’s Park is the park belonging to St James, for example.

But the practice took at least one hundred years to be generally adopted, and the current moves by local councils are edging us away from an orthography that has held sway for a relatively short period.

Are we right to get hot under the collar if there’s no little squiggle to show that Mid Devon’s council belongs to Mid Devon? Perhaps we should save it for missing letters, a rule that everyone seems to understand, or even give up on the apostrophe altogether?

You Decide

  1. Is trying to maintain firm rules for a rapidly evolving language hopeless?
  2. Should official bodies like councils, and businesses like Waterstones, set an example?

Activities

  1. Look at the examples of incorrect use of apostrophes on the Apostrophe Protection Society website and correct them.
  2. Write a tribute or make an illustration about your favourite punctuation mark: is it the shape? The function it performs? Its history?

Some People Say...

“These people should get out more.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I make mistakes, or fear mistakes with punctuation. Why keep these rules?
Well, Lynne Truss, whose book about the importance of correct punctuation Eats, Shoots and Leaves became an unexpected bestseller, argues that consistency in grammar, spelling and punctuation allows us to ‘decode’ any writer from the last 500 years. Without standardisation, she says, these works might languish unappreciated by modern readers.
OK, but should that really govern what we do now?
On the one hand, our connection with the great writers of English will be broken if we don’t maintain a common language. On the other, recent research by academics suggests that even Jane Austen was ‘corrected’ by her publishers – she liked to use dashes, which were changed to semicolons by editors. So nobody’s perfect!

Word Watch

Apostasy
Usually used to describe an individual breaking away from an established religion, the term is used here, jokingly, to make it sound more serious if someone abandons the rules of punctuation.
Standardisation
The idea of a standard language is tied to how it is written. In the 15th century when printing and the production of official documents became part of the machinery of government, English as used at the London court became the accepted official written language. During the 18th century scholars including Samuel Johnson tried to codify words with dictionaries and grammar rule books. But an Academy to lay down the law on use of English has never been established.
Orthography
The upmarket word for standardisation of spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Jane Austen
An exhibition of manuscripts at the British Museum in 2010 included remarks that incensed fans of this celebrated novelist (1775-1817): her punctuation was ‘slapdash.’

Subjects

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