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Richard Nordquist

The Rage Over Apostrophes (Transatlantic Edition)

By February 6, 2009

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The latest skirmish in the long campaign to abolish the apostrophe is taking place in Birmingham, England, where last week the city council announced that it's eliminating the apostrophe from street signs and place names. According to Paul Dale's report in the Birmingham Post, "All remaining apostrophes will disappear as signs are replaced, and English language pedants hoping for a return to the days of Druidís Heath and Kingís Norton are being warned to expect to be disappointed."

Councilor Martin Mullaney, who drafted the new policy, argued that apostrophes "denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed. More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don't want to have an A-level in English to find it."

Language mavens haven't been persuaded by Mullaney's observation that England's second-largest city is simply following the lead of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which dropped apostrophes from most American place names in 1891. "Now children will go around Birmingham and see utter chaos," said John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

The press officer for the Plain English Campaign, Marie Clair, has described the council's ruling as "complete lunacy" and "the thin end of the wedge."

Mullaney seems to be enjoying the apostrophic ruckus he's stirred up. "Iíve even had New Zealand television interviewing me," he told a local reporter today. "Iíve been on BBC and Radio Four and had people emailing from America saying I am a disgrace and ought to be shot."

The latest response to Birmingham's apostrophe ban has come from a place that has never been known as Usage City, USA--Nashville, Tennessee. Two local songwriters, Bob Beckley and Ronnie Lee Hurst, have composed a tune called "Apostrophe Apostasy" (listen to it here), which includes the line, "Shakespeare's rolling over in his grave."

Frankly, it's unlikely that Shakespeare would give a damn, as linguist Tom McArthur points out in The Oxford Companion to the English Language. While apostrophes began to be used in the late sixteenth century to show possession, "only four percent of the possessives in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare (1623) had them."

However, McArthur does provide some small comfort to defenders of the mark. It's probable, he says, "that the many and varied uses of the apostrophe will remain part of the language for a long time to come, despite some reduction in range, and accompanied by a great deal of inconsistency and error in practice."

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