Rumors of the apostrophe’s death are greatly exaggerated

Pike’s Peak, apparently, is actually spelled Pikes Peak. No apostrophe. The US Board on Geographic Names abolished apostrophes in most place names all the way back in 1891. Nothing appears to have changed since then. Their Domestic Geographic Names: Principles, Policies, and Procedures (PDF) has this to say on the subject:

Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper geographic name (Henrys Fork: not Henry’s Fork). The word or words that form a geographic name change their connotative function and together become a single denotative unit. They change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists. Thus, we write ” Jamestown” instead of ” James’ town” or even “Richardsons Creek” instead of ” Richard’s son’s creek.” The whole name can be made possessive or associative with an apostrophe at the end as in ” Rogers Point’s rocky shore.” Apostrophes may be used within the body of a geographic name to denote a missing letter ( Lake O’ the Woods) or when they normally exist in a surname used as part of a geographic name (O’Malley Hollow).

And it’s not just the United States. In Guidelines for the Consistent Use of Place Names (PDF), Australia also abolishes apostrophes, though for very different reasons:

In all cases of place names containing an element that has historically been written with a final – ‘s or -s’, the apostrophe is to be deleted, e.g. Howes Valley, Rushcutters Bay, Ladys Pass. This is to facilitate the consistent matching and retrieval of placenames in database systems such as those used by the emergency services.

And here in the UK, the city of Birmingham recently abolished the use of the possessive apostrophe on road signs, much to the dismay of apostrophe protectors and militant grammarians.

The opponents of the apostrophe — of which there are more than I ever imagined — seem to be equally militant. In fact, they go so far as to demand that we kill the apostrophe. It’s been suggested that killing off the apostrophe is the only possible cure for the greengrocers’ apostrophe.

This is nothing new. George Bernard Shaw railed against apostrophes:

I have written aint, dont, havent, shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example hell for he’ll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of papering pages with these uncouth bacilli.

I do love George Bernard Shaw — even more so when he’s ranting — but I’m not entirely convinced. I’m decidedly not a militant grammarian, but I don’t think English would look like English without the apostrophe. Maybe I’m just old school.

The apostrophe can be confusing. Until the apostrophe is killed off by the haters, the Plain English Campaign has a helpful guide (PDF). Alternatively, you could just follow William Safire’s sage advice:

Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed.

Update: In the interests of presenting both sides of the arguement, I felt obliged to mention The Apostrophe Protection Society. I hasten to point out that I in no way endorse the web design or indeed the HTML of their website.

Update 2: Michael Quinion has written an excellent essay on the possessive apostrophe, which is where I discovered Australia’s Guidelines for the Consistent Use of Place Names (PDF).

6 thoughts on “Rumors of the apostrophe’s death are greatly exaggerated

  1. Sometimes leaving it out just leads to confusion. I was outside the ‘Duke of Yorks’ cinema (how the sign read) in Brighton recently and all it did was become a talking point about where the apostrophe had gone. Did it fall off or was it purposefully missing? Which then lead to questions about the history of the cinema, we’d guessed that ‘Yorks’ may mean ‘Yorkshire’, but did it? I know I probably need to get out more, but I’d also rather be able to understand immediately what’s meant, I’m not so bothered about what’s gramatically correct as these things change over time.

  2. Interestingly, it’s Duke of York’s on their website.

    I’m wondering if the Web might not contribute the demise of the possessive apostrophe.

    HTML will only represents a single space unless you explicity add a non-breaking space ( ). This seems to have contributed to the slow demise of the double-space at the end of sentences rule, which I’m sure Twitter’s 140 character limit will further hasten.

    As far as I know, you can’t register a domain that contains an apostrophe (thought that may have changed?). As brands attempt to align themselves with their websites and the domains associated with them, will apostrphes get dropped? I’m thinking of companies like Sainsbury’s.

  3. The thing I find interesting about this debate is whether the apostrophe is actually useful, and useful enough for people to bother using it. I’ve wound up several friends by suggesting that it’s ‘pointless’, and evolutionary irrelevant. I find it annoying when it’s not used but is that just because I’m used to seeing it? In this case should I just get over it? One must recognise that a language is continually evolving.

  4. Rob, I’m curious.

    Are you saying that apostrophes in general are useless or merely the posessive apostrophe?

    I may be coming around to the latter point of view. I don’t really know how the possesive apostrophe originated, though I now want to do some research to find out.

    In the case of conjunctions and abbreviations, I think it’s quite useful as a stand-in for omitted letters.

    In either case, I can wholeheartedly recommend deploying the George Bernard Shaw quote I used above to further wind up your friends.

  5. The latter. For some reason my iPhone automatically corrects ‘ill’ to I’ll which is a clear demonstration for the usage of an apostrophe!

    When arguing against possessive apostrophes I normally start with the fact that language is evolving. I then go on to say that if people find possessive apostrophes difficult to use (as demonstrated by abundant misuse) then perhaps they are not worth using. I might then postulate that eventually people will put the apostrophe in for all ‘s’s.

    This is of course mostly tongue in cheek. What I find interesting is why people hold onto ‘proper’ usage. Is it elitism (I learnt proper grammar so everyone else should use it in the correct way) or does it actually make communication more difficult.

    When I read my younger cousins emails I feel repulsed (I can, of course, fully understand what they’re trying to tell me) due to the “text” speak used. Clearly this is not the future of the English language but one has to recognise that it is changing.

  6. I get upset when its / it’s is used incorrectly. In this case, I think it’s elitism, as I think that the distinction actually creates more confusion that it resolves.

    The whole distiction between the two makes no sense to me.

    Apparently, its was originally spelled it’s. If some crazy grammarian hadn’t decided to change it, I think there would be a lot less confusion about apostrophes.

    Of course, the other option would have been not to introduce the possessive apostrophe in the first place.

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