Dispatches | February 01, 2009

Bad news this week for advocates of the apostrophe, and no, O gentle reader, I’m not talking about this kind of apostrophe — it’s doing just fine — I’m talking about the captain of contraction, the prince of possession, the hovering hero who hauls “he’ll” out of “hell.” Officials in the English city of Birmingham have decided to turn away from the apostrophe — a punctuation mark that takes its name from the Greek apostrephein, which means “to turn away” — and have banned it from use in public signage.

As the Birmingham story was breaking, it just so happens that I was finishing the chapter on the apostrophe in Richard Lederer and John Shore’s Comma Sense: A Fundamental Guide to Punctuation. My fiancée, who had devoted much of the day to deciding how to most convincingly dress up like a cowgirl, was currently having a hootin’, hollerin’ girls’ night out across town, which left me a few hours to let my mind get buck wild in the world of grammar and punctuation. I learned a lot I didn’t know about the apostrophe. I came to appreciate the way it floats at the end of a word, flung forward, jeopardized, but elegant, nonetheless, much like the image of my fiancée in the photos I would be shown later that night, her slim figure frozen in flight an instant after being launched helplessly from the back of a mechanical bull.

Associated Press writer Meera Selva reports that those responsible for the Birmingham apostrophe ban justified it by claiming the apostrophe compromises GPS navigating systems (Garmond users, please weigh in on this). They also claimed the back and forth over apostrophes has taken too much time in city planning meetings. Plus, they said, many of them have become obsolete, and are, in general, confusing. The following quote was given by Councilor Martin Mullaney, pictured at the left on what the British call “a lammy,” from Birmingham’s transport scrutiny board. And yes, that’s right — he’s from their transport scrutiny board.

“Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed,” said Mullaney. “More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.”

Basically, the argument is that apostrophes are confusing, and it’s better to take them out. After all, on many street signs, mailboxes and billboards, they’re already missing or misplaced. And yes, they can be confusing. Words like “hers” and “yours” are possessive, and they don’t need apostrophes. Family names that end in S are hard enough to do right when they’re pluralized without throwing apostrophes into the fray. And who among us nails “its”/”it’s” 100% of the time, in every medium, even text messaging? Not I. The apostrophe was just an early printers’ innovation, anyway. It wouldn’t be the same as, say, flushing out the colon.

Still, to me, this all seems a little unfair. All this time, it’s been doing its own job and somebody else’s — expressing contraction (the job it relocated from France to work, according to a history by Cavella and Kernodle) and also expressing possession. Hire some more help? Not in this economy. So while all the hip little marks are hanging out together, bragging about the quotable quips they get to punctuate or the celebrity names they expect to hyphenate, the apostrophe’s doing double duty up in low orbit, keeping pretty much to itself, but being largely misunderstood, and wildy abused.

Something else I notice, now, as I look at my fiancée’s pictures from last night at the honky tonk: a woman on the dance floor, dressed in Western wear, who has paused mid boot-scoot to shoot my fiancée and her faux-cowgirl posse the evil eye. I flip a few photos further to the image of my bride-to-be in apostrophic ascent off the bucking mechanical bull, and it occurs to me that regardless of the location, the environment, or the culture, there will always be some who would rather remove something than make an effort to learn about it. What a sad thing that is.

I flip back to the image of the glaring, Western wear-ing woman.

“Whoa,” my fiancée says, “I didn’t even see her do that.”

I’m glad she didn’t. I hope the apostrophe didn’t see it coming, either, over there, across the pond.