18 Feb 2014

In Defence of the Apostrophe

Battles continue to rage over the use of the apostrophe

There are some who find them superfluous, but try banishing the apostrophe and you risk facing a legion of angry grammarians intent of preserving the duties and status of the humble punctuation mark.

One council in England, which really should have known better, decided to do precisely that two years ago. Cambridge City Council – under whose influence rests one of the greatest seats of learning in the world – made the ill-judged move to remove punctuation in new road names so as not to ‘confuse emergency services’.

Despite the council arguing that it was purely following ‘national guidelines’, the retribution was swift….and dirty.

Operation grammar

Saboteurs and subversives soon took to the streets, armed with something far mightier than a sword, carrying with them a pedant’s fervour in their eye, and graffiti in their hearts.

And so, across the district, the wilful destruction of public property was under way and members of the public took it upon themselves to fill in the missing apostrophes by hand. No longer would signs for “Scholars Way” stab at the hearts of the punctilious like a sharpened solidus. Instead, the proud apostrophe would be set free to transform the suburban stele into a palimpsest of exactitude and virtue: “Scholars’ Way”.

The onslaught was too much; the enemy of good grammar routed, and so in the houses of the fastidious across the city, cheers of victory greeted news that the apostrophe was to be reinstated.

Street parties

In the war room back at council HQ, leader Tim Bick stepped up to the hastily erected podium to announce that an “executive decision” had been taken to make clear that for future street names “we will not be obliged to avoid proper punctuation”.

“After consulting with my colleague Tim Ward, executive councillor for planning, we decided we must call time on the great apostrophe debate,” he said.

“Councillor Ward has taken an executive decision to amend our street naming policy to make clear that for future new street names in Cambridge we will not be obliged to avoid proper punctuation when it is required by the relevant name.

“It is now clear that the original decision made two years ago to ban the apostrophe from street names flew below everyone’s radar, amazingly even after public consultation at the time.

“It is a nonsense to deny the English language when applying it to everyday terms describing where people live.”

Resistance sympathiser and general rabble-rouser, Kathy Salaman, called the switch a “great” and “sensible” decision.

The director of the Cambridgeshire-based Good Grammar Company, said: “There was a great strength of feeling out there.

“I acknowledge that apostrophes are not a matter of life or death. But it’s important when we’re trying to raise literacy standards in the country and raise Britain’s profile throughout the world as we languish in literacy tables.”

The fight goes on

But this is not the only linguistic beachhead to have been breached. Just last year, Mid Devon District Council announced that it was also banning apostrophes from street names to “avoid potential confusion”.

It even admits that its policy of grammatical discrimination has been up and running for a number of years, but 2013 was the year that the shameful edict became official.

Information gleaned from other sources suggest this act of may be due to dissention in the ranks.

Commenting on the Cambridgeshire U-turn, a Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “This is a common-sense victory for good grammar.

“The apostrophe was first introduced in the 16th century. Cambridge’s attempted coup d’etat of the Queen’s English has failed.

“This cherished piece of punctuation couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t ever have been eradicated from Cambridge’s street names by bureaucratic intransigence.”

The apostrophe can be used to…

  • Show possession – John’s ball, this year’s look
  • Indicate where letters may have been removed when two words are combined – it’s (it is); don’t (do not) should’ve (should have)
  • Show possession when a plural noun ends with the letter s by going after the s – Mary attends a girls’ school
  • Show possession of a plural noun the does not end in an s by going before the s – Julie worked at a women’s refuge


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