A policy decision by Mid Devon District Council could have a long-term impact on the English language. Officials have decided to do away with apostrophes on new street names as a way of “avoiding potential confusion”.
It is not the first time that outrage has been caused by the culling of an apostrophe. Last year, bookseller Waterstones decided it was time to oust the same punctuation mark in its name as it was more practical in the digital age, and they no longer needed to pay homage to founder Tim Waterstone.
Now I know that grammar is not the usual fare of Wordability. But with apostrophes in public consciousness more than they have been since the success of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, I have inevitably found myself thinking about my attitude to this perennially misused bit of punctuation.
And of course, it does tie into Wordability’s meat and drink of new words very neatly. After all, if the death of the apostrophe were to become widespread officially, as of course it already is for many users of English, than that would lead to a raft of new words appearing in the language. Lets, theyre, shes might all be taking their place in the dictionaries that my grandchildren will be accessing in years to come. So I asked myself: Is that such a bad thing?
Of course my immediate answer was yes, absolutely. As a journalist of many years standing, and a famously pedantic sub-editor for large chunks of that, I abhorred a misplaced apostrophe along with the best of them. I could, and often did, rant as well as Steve Jenner of the Plain English Campaign, who reacted to the Mid Devon decision by saying: “Language is an agreed set of rules and if we stop agreeing that’s the case it’s going to cause real problems. It could actually be dangerous. It could cause situations where people are misunderstood.”
He makes a valid argument. But something has changed in me by writing Wordability for the last 18 months. This blog celebrates the way that English changes and evolves, and crucially, reinforces the point that the language does not belong to the grammarians and the lexicographers, there are no arbiters who can ultimately say what is right and what is wrong. The language belongs to the people who speak it.
Now this doesn’t mean that people who speak it can just randomly change anything they feel like. If people suddenly started constructing their sentences backwards, changed the word ‘the’ into ‘aadvark’ or whistled between every syllable, nobody else would understand them. But eventually they might. Eventually, if enough people found that aadvarking with abandon really made them happy, then that change would force its way through to becoming the accepted norm.
And so I suspect it is with apostrophes. They still make things clearer in written language, but they make no difference at all to the spoken word. The context explains away the ‘s’ sound at the end of the word, with no need for some kind of flag to provide clarification.
Compare that to something like the comma, where the pause in the written words have a connection to the way that something would be spoken, the pause aids understanding in both spoken and written form. The punctuation there is a key part of the meaning. In the case of the apostrophe, I think that context might do the job just as well as the annotation.
So, and I can’t believe I am saying this, I can see a future where the apostrophe has ceased to have any meaningful role. And if that happens, then so be it. It will simply mean that language and understanding has moved to a place where it is no longer required, rather than it being a case of poor standards.
One of my university lecturers, when teaching me Old English, used to say ‘man is a lazy animal’ as a way of explaining changes that happened during Anglo-Saxon times. That is still true. So if we were to lose the apostrophe, it would not be as apocalyptic as some people would have us believe.
UPDATE: Since posting this Mid Devon Council has changed its mind. No matter. Someone else will be along soon to attack the apostrophe, and the debate is still very much alive.