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Last week the city council of Birmingham, England's second largest city, decided to drop apostrophes from all local street signs. Henceforth it shall be "St Pauls Square," "Druids Heath," "Acocks Green," and so forth. The British papers and the Associated Press have expressed outrage, ridicule, or at least amusement. (I hope the lack of an apostrophe in the AP's headline, "Its a catastrophe for the apostrophe," is meant as a little joke.)


I haven't seen anyone point out, though, that the entire United States has followed the same policy for many years. From the U.S. Board on Geographic Names'  "Principles, Policies, and Procedures" governing domestic place names: 

Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper geographic name (Henrys Fork: not Henry's Fork). 

Why is that?

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.

Say what? We aren't supposed to associate Henry (whoever he is) with his Fork (wherever that is)? Then why was it named after Henry? For that matter, if the words in place names lose their "dictionary meaning" and become "fixed labels," why are we bothering to call Henrys Fork "Fork" instead of "Henrys Mountain" or "Henrys Axolotl"? That rationale is a thoroughly silly one masquerading as linguistic science.

I can imagine banishing apostrophes from signs because they look like fly specks. I can imagine doing so for the reason that Martin Mullaney, of the Birmingham city council, gave, saying, "I had to make a final decision on this. We keep debating apostrophes in meetings and we have other things to do." What I wish I could imagine and can't, though, is that we'll put back all the apostrophes in names like "St. Paul's Square" and "Henry's Fork" that the normal rules of English call for. 


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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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