An English Town Drops Apostrophes From Street Signs. Some Aren’t Happy.

An English Town Drops Apostrophes From Street Signs. Some Aren’t Happy.

By Oghale May10,2024

Malcolm Wood, an English teacher in North Yorkshire, did a double take recently as he passed by a quiet road, St. Mary’s Walk. The street’s new sign had no apostrophe.

The change, part of the North Yorkshire Council’s move to phase out apostrophes from its street signs, has elicited dissent in Harrogate, a Victorian spa town in northern England. Soon after the new sign was erected, someone drew an apostrophe on it.

“If you get rid of the apostrophe, what’s next?” said Mr. Wood, who has spent years teaching students the rules of English grammar. “Commas? Full stops?” He asked, “We just use emojis?”

The North Yorkshire Council said that its policy of phasing out apostrophes was not new.

“We appreciate that residents value the meaning and history behind official street names which often date back centuries, and that the removal of punctuation is seen as a reduction in standards,” Karl Battersby, the council’s director of environment, said in a statement on Thursday. “However, the decision does have benefits, such as helping to prevent complications while searching on databases, for instance.” He said the council would be reviewing the matter.

Andrew Jones, the member of Parliament for the Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency in North Yorkshire, sent a letter on Wednesday to the head of the council on behalf of several constituents who had complained to him that apostrophes had been dropped from signs for St. Mary’s Walk and King’s Road in Harrogate.

“We spend time, effort and money educating children about the correct use of punctuation so our councils should use punctuation correctly too,” Mr. Jones said in a statement that urged the council to reverse its policy.

The apostrophe policy was reported last month by a local news site, The Stray Ferret, after a resident complained to the publication about the new sign for St. Mary’s Walk.

While some grammarians said apostrophes were as essential as proper spelling, others said they served no real purpose.

John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist and associate professor, said that he cringes a little bit when he sees a misused apostrophe, but he is never confused about the writer’s meaning.

“Ultimately, no coherent case could be made that apostrophes help with clarity,” said Dr. McWhorter, who writes a weekly column for The New York Times. They are merely “a kind of decoration,” he added.

Dr. McWhorter said apostrophes were the “fish forks” of punctuation. “They sit there, you’re not quite sure how to use them; you’re almost sure to use them wrong.”

Apostrophes crept into written English for arbitrary reasons, Dr. McWhorter said. “It’s one more way to look down on people who never quite mastered ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ when really we should be thinking about how effectively they get their message across.”

Debates about grammar usage elicit strong feelings because language is an important part of identity, said Ellie Rye, an English lecturer at the University of York in England. Still, in the history of the English language, apostrophes are “quite modern,” she said. They were not used to mark possession until the 16th century, in a limited capacity, and more widely in the 17th or 18th centuries, Dr. Rye said.

Over the years, apostrophes have been dropped from some British store names, such as one of Harrogate’s most famous shops, Bettys Café Tea Rooms, which removed its apostrophe decades ago. The British bookseller Waterstones, founded by Tim Waterstone, dropped the apostrophe from its name in 2012.

Bob McCalden, the chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, a tiny group in Britain focused on promoting proper usage of the apostrophe, said he took no issue with businesses dropping apostrophes from their names, but phasing them out of street names was “cultural vandalism.”

Dropping the apostrophe from St. Mary’s Walk obscured the history of the street, named after the nearby St. Mary’s Church, he said. “We should be acknowledging and celebrating our social history, rather than trying to erase it.”

Mr. McCalden said he was drafting a letter to the chief executive of the North Yorkshire Council to try to persuade it to reverse its decision. There’s some precedent: A decade ago, the Cambridge City Council reversed its decision to remove apostrophes from new road names. Last year, after residents complained that a new sign for St. Mary’s Terrace did not have an apostrophe, local leaders replaced the sign with one that included one.

Rebecca Evans, a writer in Harrogate, acknowledged that languages change over time. But she said the council’s reason for changing the signs was uninspiring. “It’s a bit sad if computer software is dictating how the language of the town is changing,” she said.

Mr. McCalden, who is also a retired information technology director, questioned what computer system was unable to cope with apostrophes. He said that in the case of the post office, for example, it was not as if postal workers said about their computer system, “Oh dear, it fell over because we came across an apostrophe in a street name.”

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