A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 27

The apostrophe, for some reason, is one of those marks that raises hackles no matter how it is approached. I write in the Shady Characters book about a news story that ran back in 2002, when the city council of Nottingham, England, instituted an “apostrophe swear box”. Infuriated by misuse of the apostrophe by council workers, Graham Chapman, the council’s leader,

[…] challenged his chief executive, John Jackson, to pay a forfeit to charity every time a council document prepared by officers contained a grammatical error. Now all 14,000 staff have been asked to cough up £1 every time they make a mistake with the proceeds going to charity.1

I now read that Mid Devon District Council, also in England, has decided to side-step the troublesome apostrophe entirely by simply removing it from all their road signs. Beset by predictable declarations of outrage, council leader Peter Hare-Scott retorted that it has long been common for apostrophes to be omitted from signs2 — and to be fair, he has a point. Birmingham City Council, for instance, issued a similar decree back in 2009, eliciting similar howls of protest.3

The apostrophe in general has long proved to be an unstable mark of punctuation, prone to decaying into non-existence. The US ruled against possessive apostrophes in place names as far back as 1890, with Australia doing the same in 2001.3 Nor does perceived wealth, social standing, or literacy prevent apostrophe catastrophe: Harrods, Selfridges, and, lately, Waterstones have all given up their possessive apostrophes, while McDonald’s proudly flies the flag for grammatical correctness.4

In the light of all this, should we care about Mid Devon’s decision to drop the apostrophe? Instinctively I would say yes, of course; but then I look at the minuscule impact that it will make: in the entire Mid Devon district, only three street names will be affected.2 Galling it may be, but I think I’ll cope.

On Twitter, Glen Turpin points out an interesting article on the origins of the “+” and “-” signs. In “Where and When Did the Symbols “+” and “–” Originate?”, Mario Livio talks about the surprisingly recent derivations of these two symbols. It’s well worth a look!

‘Apostrophe-box’ for spelling errors,” BBC News, 2002. ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [Morris2013Outrage] ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [Dolan2009Apostrophe] ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [Guardian2012Waterstones] ↩︎

2 comments on “Miscellany № 27

  1. Comment posted by Space Hobo on

    In London, the Underground stations have fluctuated as to their use of the apostrophe. “Earls Court” (as it is clearly named in old photographs) is now “Earl’s Court”, although the next station West on the Piccadilly Line (two stations on the District) is still “Barons Court”.

    If you spend some time with the Underground map, you can find more than a few inconsistencies of style like this!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Space Hobo,

      First, congratulations on your commenting handle. I’m not sure I’ve ever had the pleasure of typing out the words “space” and “hobo” in conjunction!

      I’m interested to hear that the apostrophe in Earl(’)s Court has reappeared — that must surely be one of the few cases where a possessive apostrophe has been successfully re-introduced into the wild. TFL’s style guide (PDF) states the following:

      Earl’s Court station
      Unlike the area or the exhibition centre, the
      Tube station has an apostrophe
      Earls Court
      Unlike the Tube station, neither the area nor
      the exhibition centre have an apostrophe

      Oddly enough, however, this is the only instance in which they feel the need to clarify their position. Barons Court and Kings Cross aren’t mentioned at all.

      Thanks for the comment!

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