In 2001, New Zealander Matt Powell created an instructively entertaining cartoon titled “The Apostrophe Catastrophe,” as the first installment of his CRGttEL series (The Complete Retard’s Guide to the English Language). Matt said,”The apostrophe is probably the most misused punctuation mark there is.” That sentiment was surely behind the launch in 2008 of the weblog Apostophe Catastrophes by “Worlds’ Worst. Punctuation;” maven “Becky.”
It’s too bad Matt Powell’s weblog is dormant these days. As you may have noticed, over the past week, the phrase “apostrophe catastrophe” has turned up again all over the print, broadcast and cyber media. Two street signs in Birmingham, England, illustrate why the apostrophe “problem” was in the news; the version on top has been replaced by the one on the bottom:
See: “Birmingham City Council bans apostrophes from road signs” (Birmingham Post, by Paul Dale Jan. 29, 2009); “Apostrophe catastrophe for city’s street signs” (The Independent [UK], Jan. 30, 2009); “City drops apostrophes from signs” (BBC, Jan. 29, 2009); “Its a catastrophe for the apostrophe in Britain” (AP, Meera Selva, Jan. 30, 2009); “Apostrophe catastrophe” (Language Log, Arnold Zwicky, Jan. 31, 2009)
As the Associated Press reported on Jan. 30, 2009:
“England’s second-largest city has decided to drop apostrophes from all its street signs, saying they’re confusing and old-fashioned. But some purists are downright possessive about the punctuation mark.”
The local paper, The Birmingham Post, explains further that:
“[T]o make things simpler, Birmingham City Council has decided road signs and place names should not have apostrophes.
“After years spent arguing the finer points of whether Kings Heath should be King’s Heath, or even Kings’ Heath, and if it would be better to call Acock’s Green Acocks Green, local authority leaders have concluded the safest thing is not to bother at all.
“All remaining apostrophes will disappear as signs are replaced, and English language pedants hoping for a return to the days of Druid’s Heath and King’s Norton are being warned to expect to be disappointed.”
This is exactly the sort of problem that gets far too many people worked up, and admittedly soaks up far too much of the f/k/a Gang’s time and energy. But, it also gets our “language legacy” juices flowing, as well as those mischievous genes that love to watch pompous people in a tizzy and ditzy public officials strut their stuff.
According to the Associated Press, Birmingham Councilor Martin Mullaney, argues “We keep debating apostrophes in meetings and we have other things to do.” He has a point, except that the apostrophes weren’t offending anyone and no groups were calling for their removal. It was their mindless deletion that caused the controversy.
Mullaney’s argument that the apostrophes were tripping up GPS systems and making it harder for emergency responders to find certain streets and landmarks seems bogus and has been disproved by many observers.
Here are a few notions we found interesting enough to pass on to you, our readers, concerning the Great Birmingham Apostrophe Castastrophe:
In his Stage column for the Birmingham Post, titled “Laughs for the wrong reason” (Feb. 4, 2009), John Slim writes, “So Birmingham is suddenly the city where the pantomime season extends into infinity.” I’m not sure just what that means, but I can understand his assessment of the impact on his City’s image:
“[T]he only effect of this nonsensical edict is that Birmingham, already burdened with national mockery for its accent, will now stand alone as the half-witted city that wrecks the language in writing as well as verbally.”
In a similar mode, Sarah Evans insists in her column “Punctuation is all the rage” (Birmingham Post, Feb. 2, 2009), that “It’s not difficult to teach the use of the apostrophe” and writes that it’s “quite extraordinary that it takes the council’s debate on dropping the apostrophe from city place names to put Birmingham in the national news” — while “The nation couldn’t care less about job losses, city regeneration, transport systems, education or health in its second largest city.” Evan wishes civic leaders had been better prepared to “best exploit the media’s fickle and short attention span.” Saying there were lost opportunities last week, Evans suggests:
“What about getting rid of capital letters – so old fashioned and a bit of a bother, no one uses them in text speak – and having ready a long list of technological innovations in the West Midlands when the media juggernaut hits again?”
The Birmingham Post has a Quick Vote online poll along with its original story, asking “Is Birmingham City Council right to ban apostrophes from road signs?” As of 1 PM EST in the USA, here are the results:
Is Birmingham City Council right to ban apostrophes from road signs?
- Yes, get rid
– No, keep them
Naturally, such polls are in no way scientific and surely tend to attract the disgruntled (while the gruntled are off meditating). For what it’s worth, the f/k/a Gang would have kept them. [update (May 14, 2010): The final tally in the Birmingham Post Quick Vote poll shows 90.3% of the participants wanting to keep the apostrophes.]
The B-Post article notes that “Birmingham has been inventing its own rules of grammar since the 1950s, with apostrophes being routinely removed when cast iron street signs are given a new coat of paint.” Which leads our Prof. Yabut to speculate the whole problem had its origin in some summer-hire teenager who painted over a street sign apostrophe by accident, ignorance or sloth. Yabut also notes:
Without the apostrophe, it looks like there’s more than one St. Paul. Is that a victory for clarity? Russell Smith in the Toronto Globe and Mail was right to sound the alarm at the Globe and Mail: “Now, even the Birmingham Children’s Hospital is the Birmingham Childrens Hospital, dashing the ambitions of that city’s schoolteachers to ever hope to teach children how to write.”
“Martin Mullaney, who devised the new policy, believes Birmingham should follow the example of America, which dropped the possessive apostrophe in place names in 1890.”
In his Globe and Mail column, Russell Smith also notes:
“Long ago, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decreed that it was against policy across the United States to include apostrophes in place names, and there hasn’t been an outcry about that.”
“Here in the U.S., we’ve been managing without apostrophes on most street signs (and maps) for some time, and often without periods and commas as well. Does utter chaos surround us? Well, no; the system is that place names don’t get apostrophes, while other expressions of possessive form do get them, and contractions get them as well.”
It seems to me, though, that America has avoided apostrophic chaos and grammatical apostasy by removing the possessive element in place names, rather than erroneously deleting apostrophes. Thus, we say “Washington Avenue”, rather than “Washington’s Avenue” or (spare us) “Washingtons Avenue.” That makes practice here in the USA a very poor precedent for introducing the confusion of apostrophe-less signage in situations where a place name has traditionally been expressed in possessive form.
update (Feb. 9, 2009).. .. This afternoon, I went to the corner of State and Ferry Streets, in Schenectady, NY (about 5 blocks form my home), to see if my recollection was correct about this historic marker for The King’s Highway. Seeing that little yellow apostrophe warmed my heart.
See: The New York State Museum’s discussion of “The King’s Highway,” which is strangely inconsistent in its use of the possessive apostotophe.
It’s quite possible to agree that “a living language must evolve,” without also subscribing to the notion “and you just have to sit back and accept the changes that occur, even if they clearly add confusion and defy useful grammar rules.” Linguistics Professor Arnold Zwicky wrote last week at Language Lab:
“I have no particular stake in the choice between preserving the older system for the use of apostrophes (and so on) on signs and maps and adopting a sparer system of punctuation (omit needless marks!). I wouldn’t even insist that punctuation practice must be consistent; apostrophied and apostrophe-less names could simply be seen as optional variants.”
Although we’re more and more wary of appearing to be old fogies or just not sufficiently liberal/hip, the Gang can’t quite understand the willingness to allow “optional variants” that serve no particularly useful principle or public goal, but will surely make it more difficult for English-speakers-writers (especially of the post-Boomer variety) to learn a perfectly useful and rather uncomplicated rule for creating the possessive form. We find ourselves leaning more toward the sentiments of Ms. Evans at the Birmingham Post:
“The national fuss is because some fear we are losing our sensitivity to language. We are a more visually based culture – a bit like cave-men – so the subtlety of words to convey and expand the possibilities of the human condition is being deemed a waste of time and the wisdom of millennia is being lost in a decade or two.”
Indeed, it’s precisely because we’ve become a “visually based culture,” that it seems counter-productive to go out of the way to produce, at public expense, ubiquitous signs that violate a rather simple rule of grammar. Official signage offers a teachable moment.
Finally, in “Trust the British to make apostrophes a class issue,” Russell Smith at the Toronto Globe and Mail (Feb. 5, 2009), after noting “This is an ideological battle,” has a good description of extremists on both sides:
“Language reformers have often thought of themselves as anti-elitist. If only the highly educated can understand the irrational vagaries of grammar (and they are, no question, irrational), then those vagaries serve only the privileged, the argument goes. And the proponents of grammar do often embarrass themselves by conflating language, good taste and morality, as if changes in usage are evidence of an unpleasant proletarianization of society. It’s no accident that British writer Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Talk to the Hand) is equally obsessed with punctuation and with manners.”
Did I say, “finally”? Three more points about the apostrophe controversy:
- Song Review: Save yourself a couple minutes, and avoid the mp3 song “Apostrophe Apostasy,” mentioned in “Birmingham apostrophe row inspires US songwriter”,” which Chris at the Apostrophe Abuse weblog calls “really bad.”
- To Peeve or Not to Peeve: This whole controversy had a fun side-effect: It allowed me to discover the words “peevology” and “peevarazzi,” relating to pet peeves. See Ben Zimmer, and Mr. Verb, along with the Boston Globe’s Jan Freeman. Count me among those who thinks “peevologist” — one who engages in the study of peeving — should be a separate word from that which designates the people who do a lot of peeving and/or love to collect peeves. Prof. Zimmer seems not to mind using one word for both groups, but I can’t image why we need to create that confusion, simply because some folks don’t know that the suffix “ology” means “the study of” (as with the use of “ecology”).
- No more “DVD’s”: Inspired by the OWL commentary on the proper use of apostrophes (see directly below), and the example of Becky at Apostrophe Catastrophes, the f/k/a Gang is promising to weed the erroneous use of apostrophes to create the plural form of acronyms. We’ll be saying “DVDs”, “TVs” and “1960s.” As OWL says, “There is no need for apostrophes indicating a plural on capitalized letters, numbers, and symbols.”
Want More Punctuation Punditry? Why not? Below the fold, you will find Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab treatment of the apostrophe; information from Jim Kacian on punctuation in the haiku genre; plus Roberta Beary’s haibun (a brief prose piece with a linked haiku) “The Proper Use of Semicolons,” which was selected for inclusion in white lies: RMA 2008.
. . . (frame from Matt Powell’s cartoon “Commas,” March 23, 2001)