A recent story from Hampshire, England, about an apostrophe that was dropped when the local council replaced a local road sign has caught the attention of many UK newspapers, and a few in other countries. One of the newspapers, The Guardian, contacted me for my comments. I've reproduced the complete article below.
Hampshire villagers bring street’s apostrophe catastrophe to a full stop
St Mary’s Terrace in Twyford has regained its lost punctuation after a row that even drew in local author Jane Austen
Fri 17 Nov 2023 12.00 GMT
Oliver Gray with the sign at St Mary's Terrace in Twyford near Winchester. Photograph: David Clarke/Solent News & Photo Agency/Solent News
It began with a grumble from a retired teacher passionate about punctuation. He was dismayed to spot that an apostrophe had vanished from the road sign of a tree-lined lane in the Hampshire village of Twyford.
The complaint led to intricate discussions at the local city council, during which the sometimes erratic punctuation of Jane Austen, the area’s most famous writer, was cited.
But after a 12-month battle, the status quo ante was restored and an apostrophe has been added back in to the sign for St Mary’s Terrace, to the delight not only of villagers but to a growing number of enthusiasts battling against the loss of the punctuation mark across the UK.
The controversy in Twyford began last year when a new road sign for St Mary’s Terrace appeared minus the apostrophe. The former teacher Oliver Gray expressed his discontent.
Consternation grew and the Lib Dem councillor Tony Bronk, who represents the village, formally put the question to Winchester city council – under procedure rule 15 (3), to be precise. The council clearly liked exact punctuation in its rules.
“Residents of St Mary’s Terrace in Twyford were surprised and disappointed to find that when their street name plate was replaced last year it was missing an apostrophe,” Bronk wrote.
“When this assumed error was questioned, the answer given was that the council’s policy required that all new street name signs must omit any apostrophe formerly shown on such signage.”
The council leader, Martin Tod, replied that while the administration’s priorities lay elsewhere, it was an issue that could lead to high emotions.
He set out the position thus: “Clear and unambiguous street and place names are vital for postal and other delivery services and also for the emergency services, and punctuation can make that more difficult, particularly with modern computer systems.”
Tod said the national guidance was that new street names should not have punctuation, but he said this did not mean scrapping all punctuation in existing street names and places.
He admitted the local authority had not always used punctuation “very consistently”, but added that neither had Austen, whose resting place is in the city’s cathedral. He also pointed out that there was no apostrophe in the name of Kings Worthy, another village near the city. But the Hampshire town of Bishop’s Waltham did have one.
Still, he agreed that the St Mary’s Terrace sign was “confusing” and “not in line with residents’ wishes” – and the apostrophe should be restored.
The Apostrophe Protection Society (mission: “to preserve the correct use of this important, though much misused, item of punctuation”; membership: 2,000 and growing) welcomed the decision.
Its chair, Bob McCalden, said it was not a trivial issue. “Apostrophes in road or town names generally have real significance. They are there for a reason. They were put in because there was some association with local history. I’m very much of the view we should be celebrating our social history.
The offending sign. Photograph: Solent News & Photo Agency
“Getting rid of apostrophes from street names is a form of cultural vandalism. It’s like spelling it wrong. You wouldn’t dream of spelling a street name wrongly but taking an apostrophe out is tantamount to just that.”
He said there were examples of councils bowing to pressure to restore apostrophes. Cambridge city council did this after campaigners replaced vanished apostrophes with marker pens.
He said the idea that abolishing apostrophes helped the emergency services was “nonsense”. “Having worked in IT for many years it is absolutely standard to write algorithms that ignore punctuation and even spelling variations. I find it very difficult to believe the emergency services require precise spelling.”
In Twyford, the old sign was finally recovered and restored. Gray, the resident who had first raised concerns, was given the honour of touching up the apostrophe on the sign. “As an ex-teacher, I’m very, very interested in grammar and apostrophes in particular,” he said. Gray admitted that some people were now complaining that there shouldn’t be a full stop after the “St” in “St. Mary’s”. “I’m not getting involved in that - it’s too controversial.”
The punctuation police
The Apostrophe Protection Society (APS) has a page on its website dedicated to misplaced, omitted or extraneous apostrophes.
Fast food restaurants tend to be frequent offenders. Such as with the sign: “We are now recruiting for various roles within our Burger King’s.” The APS comments: “The plural of Burger King is Burger Kings! No apostrophe please!”
A sign outside a cafe reads: “Pizza’s, Kebab’s, Burger’s, Jacket’s, Chicken, Sausage’s, Dessert’s, Drink’s.” APS says: “I’d get indigestion from these!”
Another sign says: “Danger keep clear of propeller’s.” The APS responds: “Keep clear of loose apostrophes.”
Some misuses are confusing. A car repair place has the sign: “Were Open.” “Are they open or not?” ponders APS.
Even Hollywood films can get it wrong, says the APS. A poster for the film Booksmart reads: “Getting straight A’s. Giving zero F’s.” But the APS says: “Plurals of single capital letters don’t need an apostrophe.”
Some businesses have deliberately lost their apostrophes. It caused a stir when Waterstones did so. It explained: “Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling.”
Cambridge and Winchester are not the only councils to have become involved in apostrophe controversies. There was an outcry when Mid Devon district council discussed formally banning the punctuation marks from its signs. At the time the council leader grumpily said there was no story there – and hadn’t the campaigners got better things to do? Clearly, for some, the answer is no, and the fight goes on.