The Gentle Art of the Apostrophe

Many of you will have already seen a report that the city of Birmingham in the UK has officially dropped the apostrophe from public signage on the grounds that it is “old fashioned” and “confusing”. My favourite part of this whole debacle (“favourite” being, of course, a relative term) is the following quotation from one Martin Mullaney, the City Councillor who seems to be at the head of this movement, or at least speaking for it:

“Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed,” he said. “More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.”

Can we look at those last two sentences for a moment? Are apostrophes really that difficult to understand? Is the difference between St. Paul’s and St. Pauls so vast as to require a high school diploma? I did French Immersion when I was in public school, so I can’t answer this question, but aren’t things like this taught in grade school? You know: See Dick’s bike! and all that?

Now, I have been called a bit of a punctuational purist in the past and I will largely stand by that designation (despite my affection for using parentheses even when unnecessary, as in this example). But this strikes me as going beyond casual misuse of punctuation and running straight into the loony bin. You might not get all nerded up over the semicolon, but I think that most people will, when pressed, admit that correct and standardized punctuation is a useful and necessary beast.

A letter to the editor in the paper today perhaps says it best:

Re: Apostrophe’s loss has purists up in arms, Feb. 5

Im a high school teacher and many of my students agree that apostrophes arent needed because they cant use them anyway and its like a lot of punctuation if you dont use it its proof its not needed.

For other students, however, it’s a matter of clarity, precision and finesse; in the most literal sense, they’re punctilious in their punctuation.

To whom does the future belong?

– John Caryl, Toronto

To whom, indeed? Somehow I feel that the future does not belong to the good Councillors of Birmingham. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “The Gentle Art of the Apostrophe

  1. Horrific! And here's me worried about Strunk & White Rule 1 in editing academic papers. If I were in Birmingham, I need not worry — oh but I would.Really. “They confuse people.” As if.”They denote possessions that are no longer accurate.” What does that mean?Lazy. People are lazy. That is all.


  2. I think the example given was that “King's Heath” once belonged to the King, but no longer does (I suppose that makes sense since there's no King at the moment). But to rename it “Kings Heath” doesn't really clear anything up — it muddies the waters, if anything. And is there anything wrong with having a name with some historical depth? After all, there was a King once, and he owned the heath once. Perhaps we're getting into revisionist history as well as revisionist grammar (doom! doom!).


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