Readersforum's Blog

May 27, 2013

Are Apostrophes Necessary?

NoNot really, no.

By Matthew J.X. Malady

One hundred and eighteen miles north of London, in the town of Boston, England, there lives a retired newspaperman named John Richards who is experiencing an unusually rotten spring. Richards is the founder and chairman of something called the Apostrophe Protection Society. His world, at least as related to the tiny mark that denotes possessives and the omission of letters from certain words, appears to be crashing down around him.

Recent news reports emanating from Richards’ native England, and from across the pond in America, describe a number of ominous developments that could threaten the sanctity of everything his society exists to protect. In March, the Mid Devon district council in southwestern England attempted to banish apostrophes from all area street signs. People went nuts, grammarians groused, and the council ultimately changed course. But celebrations by apostrophe acolytes would soon be contracted. A few months after the Mid Devon switcheroo, the Wall Street Journal noted that the United States Board on Geographic Names maintains a longstanding policy of removing apostrophes from titles proposed for towns, mountains, caves, and other assorted locations Americans like to name. The government doesn’t want us getting the wrong idea about, for instance, whether some guy named Pike actually owns “Pikes Peak.” So that’s why formal place names in the U.S.—aside from a few noteworthy exceptions such as Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Clark’s Mountain in Oregon—rarely include apostrophes. English language formalists are now up in arms about that manner of proceeding, too.

With each new controversy, it becomes increasingly clear that we, as a society, have reached a Pikes Peak of our own when it comes to fussing and nitpicking over things like how we denote possessives and contractions. The apostrophe chatter business, according to Chairman Richards, is booming. He gets 30 or 40 apostrophe-related inquiries each month via email. “My website has received over a million hits,” he says.

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