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VOL. 128 | NO. 76 | Thursday, April 18, 2013

Vic Fleming

Apostrophe Yes or No?

By Vic Fleming

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Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times reported in late March that “To grammarians’ delight, officials in southwest England who had considered expunging apostrophes from street signs threw out the idea … and vowed to follow the rules of proper English.” Ha! Good luck with that!

The governing council of Mid Devon, a district of about 80,000 residents, had proposed merely to “codify” a practice that was already occurring – omitting little squiggly marks on signs reading “Kings Crescent,” “St. Pauls Square,” and the like.

The proposal ignited a grammatical kerfuffle in an otherwise quiet little corner of the British Isles. “I don’t think it’s going to shorten my life or destroy my pension,” said a former district council member. Somehow he then added that “if you want some dinner, you can eat your son’s.” Without the apostrophe, “it’s cannibalism.”

The council found itself lambasted by proponents of good grammar far and wide “for even thinking of killing off such a useful punctuation mark.” (Apparently a large contingent would rather see the apostrophe used wrongly than dropped – that’s my opinion!)

The council ordered its staff “to come up with a revised plan for road signs that would save the apostrophe from the chop.” A spokesperson proclaimed, “We made absolutely clear we wouldn’t accept any policy that does away with apostrophes.”

Now, how will they enforce the no-ban-on-apostrophes? I wish them the best, but my expectations are low. I predict a C-average result. To gauge this, I’d gather all uses of apostrophes on street signs, then add to them all instances where an apostrophe was not used when it should have been. From that set, I’d guess about 75 percent of the unit would be correct.

I’ve seen renovation of a federal building result in signs on multiple doors reading “Attorney’s Only,” to say nothing of a sign in front of a building reading “Attorney’s-at-Law.” I’ve seen signs on mailboxes reading “The Jacobs’, ” The Jones’,” and “The Smith’s.” In groceries, I’ve seen signs promoting sales on “Tomato’s” and Potatoe’s.”

As widely reported in 2011, after 110 years of misspelling its own name, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles inserted an apostrophe.

But who am I to pre-judge? There’s a society out there with jurisdiction over this very subject matter. “I’m very glad that they had second thoughts,” said John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society. “Once an official body starts saying, ‘Don’t do the apostrophes,’ it carries a lot of weight.”

Richards used to be a copy editor. Some years back, he formed the APS to promote the apostrophe’s proper use. “The English language is important,” Richards said before the Mid Devon matter was voted on. “I’m all for evolution, as long as it evolves into something better. … Change … because people are too lazy to learn to use it properly [is] going backward.”

The above matter was prominently reported in my local statewide daily. Less than a week later, the sports editor, in his regular column, started a sentence with “Syracuse’ coach is in the spotlight again … .”

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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