Kara Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Birmingham outlaws the apostrophe--seriously?!

Note: This post was written before I realized I was trans and/or before I came out online. As such, I might refer to myself as a man or use my deadname. Please read my name policy to understand how you should refer to me.

Furious doesn't even begin to describe it. Town councilors in Birmingham, England have decided to drop apostrophes from signage. This unilateral decision about signage grammar is nothing less than a declaration of war against the English language. I call for a retaliatory preemptive strike.((You may be wondering how that is possible--suffice it to say, considerable amounts of power and some time travel would be involved.))

I'm appalled that people have the nerve to desecrate the English language in such a manner. It's true that English evolves; we change the spelling of words, and we create new words to express new concepts. Yet this change is artificial and arbitrary, chosen because it supposedly clears up confusion around what a street name implies or how to locate it on a GPS.

Apostrophes seem to be a very controversial punctuation mark. Mind you, all punctuation marks have their little quirks. The comma is the overused youngest child; semicolons are the misunderstood middle child. As the oldest child, the colon tends to pick up the slack from its younger siblings. Periods are: final, definitive, and ubiquitous. Dashes and hyphens are like fraternal twins--similar-yet-different. None of these, however, attracts as much controversy as our friendly neighbourhood apostrophe. Some misguided people try to use the apostrophe to denote plurality, appending apostrophe s to the end of words. This, apparently, is called the "greengrocer's apostrophe" (note the possessive apostrophe example).((From Lynch, Guide to Grammar and Style, my favourite online resource for grammar matters.))

This annoys me.

And don't even get me started on the debate between whether a plural possessive should be 's or s'. I personally prefer the latter, as in "The monks' cells were small and square." Hardcore grammarians even debate it down to the plurality of the noun itself--i.e., "monks'" is OK, but "James'" is not, since James is a single person.

The Yahoo! news article quoted Councilor Martin Mullaney, who said:

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 (high school diploma) in English to find it.

Let's break that down into its component issues. Firstly, Mullaney contends that apostrophes denote obsolete possessions--i.e., the monarchy no longer owns "King's Heath", so it should just be "Kings Heath". In other words, Mullaney wants to sacrifice historical context in order to save the cost of printing another character on a sign.

Secondly, and more troubling, is the idea that one needs a high school diploma in order to navigate streets that have apostrophes in their names. While I'm certain that Mr. Mullaney was employing hyperbole with that remark, it implies that one needs a formal education of any sort to understand the use of an apostrophe. As far as I'm concerned, one really only needs to be literate in the English language. If you can't read English, you're going to have trouble reading the street signs anyway.

If this decision stands, it sets a terrible precedent for future grammar legislation. Those of us who love the English language for the beautiful lexical syntax that it is are fast becoming an endangered species. We must stand strong and stand together in these dark times.