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News & views

Aberrant apostrophe anguish, again

Mid Devon Council’s discussions on whether to drop apostrophes from local street names have occupied even more column inches and airtime than these no-apostrophe-means-end-of-civilization stories usually attract.

Our resident grumpy grammarians note that such stories tend to appear in newspapers that forget to apostrophize expressions like two weeks notice (read two weeks’ notice) and three days pay (read three days’ pay), even as they lecture their readers about grammar and falling standards.

We tackled the place-names problem in Pikestaff 23 (Jan 2009) when another council, Birmingham, decided to ban apostrophes from its street names. To avoid muddle, the council applied a city-wide policy on this. Thus there’s no apostrophe in Kings Heath, Kings Norton, Queens Park, Bishops Town and Bishops Wood. Apostrophe-free names elsewhere include Exeter St Davids station, St Albans Cathedral and St Pancras station. However, King’s Cross and St Paul’s stations in London do each proudly sport a tadpole.

According to The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, apostrophes are not used in place names in Australia and the US, thanks to the Geographical Names Board and the Board on Geographic Names respectively. The US allows five exceptions including Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

In Britain, there's no clearcut solution, and apostrophe use is unpredictable. The Cambridge Guide gives these examples: Kings Cross versus King's Lynn; St Albans versus St Martin's; St Helens (Lancashire) and St Helen's (Isle of Wight). It goes on to advise checking individual names in the Post Office Guide or Oxford Atlas.

It seems to us perfectly reasonable for an organization to adopt a house rule that encourages consistency in apostrophe use, provided it’s not utterly stupid. The change Devon is proposing is akin to dropping full stops from acronyms – most of us don’t write B.B.C. and N.A.T.O. any more, do we?

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