The Apostrophe's Battle Is Mountainous

Slowly but surely, the apostrophe has been forgotten or purposely left behind in an increasing array of words. The very public feuding over public places and punctuation is here again — and it's been going on far longer than you might think.

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A while back there was a mild or maybe sort of vehement kerfuffle about apostrophes with regard to signs in Britain. Officials in southwestern England thought they'd get rid of the 'postrophe and change, say, "King's Crescent to Kings Crescent" or "St. Paul's Square into St. Pauls Square." The idea was to avoid potential confusion, though who, exactly, was confused is not clear. Afterward, people did become confused, bellowing "why!?" from the public house's rafters in the town's squares, with the help of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

They won the battle, but did they win the war? Slowly but surely, the apostrophe has been forgotten or purposely left behind in an increasing array of words. In 2012, for instance, the UK book chain known as Waterstone's (named for founder Tim Waterstone) became Waterstones, to the great displeasure of many. But this battle is not confined to shores across the pond. And it's been going on far longer than you might think.

Today in The Wall Street Street Journal Barry Newman points out that right here in the U.S. of A. there's apostrophe war being waged as well: "The Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names doesn't like apostrophes. Visitors to Harpers Ferry or Pikes Peak might not realize it, but anyone aspiring to name a ridge or a swamp after a local hero will soon find out." This comes up because in the town of Thurman, New York, the local government is working to honor James Cameron (not the director), who settled there in 1773. They want to give a mountain his name. They're not sure which mountain, or what to call it — Jimmy's Peak, Jimmie's Peak, James' Peak, maybe. But they know they want to include the apostrophe. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, however, does not. 

A note for your grammar club: In their 113-year history of giving geographical locations names, The Domestic Names Committee has given a mere five exceptions for possessive apostrophes, "mostly under public pressure," writes Newman. That's Martha's Vineyard, Mass. (local protests); Ike's Point, N.J. (because no one could read it otherwise); John E's Pond, R.I. (very confusing otherwise); Carlos Elmer's Joshua View, Ariz. ("because the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic names argued that three given names in a row would 'dilute the meaning' since 'Joshua' is the name of a tree and 'Carlos Elmer' was the name of a photographer); and Clark's Mountain, Ore. (because that's how Lewis and Clark preferred it). Note: "The U.S., in fact, is the only country with an apostrophe-eradication policy" thanks to Benjamin Harrison, the one-term president who set up the Board on Geographic Names in 1890. Since then, they've been eradicating apostrophes one step at a time. "By one board estimate," writes Newman, "it has scrubbed 250,000 apostrophes from federal maps. The states mostly—but not always—bow to its wishes."

In the fight for the apostrophe for James Cameron's mountain, the typical arguments have come up again. Without it, there's chaos, there's no consistency, it's the typical slippery slope to illiteracy, words and phrases are hard to understand. Can't a person just have their possessive and eat it, too, perhaps at McDonald's? This trouble, of course, and the widespread 'postrophe panic, becomes even greater in Internet times. What do we lose if we lose the apostrophe?

Well, as linguist Geoffrey Pullum pointed out, following what I have enjoyed calling the British sign "catpostrophe" (think catastrophe, not felines), there's one thing people need to get straight: The apostrophe is not, technically, even a punctuation mark. Per Pullum, "Punctuation marks are placed between units (sentences, clauses, phrases, words, morphemes) to signal structure, boundaries, or pauses. The apostrophe appears within words." It's a fascinating tidbit, though it doesn't mean we can't keep loving, and hoping to hang on to, our apostrophes. On the bright side for apostrophe lovers, in 2011, after only 110 years, Children's Hospital Los Angeles finally added that little mark between the n and the s. Maybe there's hope.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.