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.
Today, 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.
Defeat of the ban would no doubt be greeted with rejoicing by guardians of good English.
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. Incensed customers begged the company to reconsider, arguing that if McDonald’s could stick with its apostrophe, so could the bookseller. Waterstones was unmoved.
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, two of whose daughters are 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.