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English City Bans the Apostrophe

And maybe it's time to let it go

Last weekend, I was on a little vacation, visiting my friend and former summer camp co-counselor Mike. I planned to put aside my language-columnist duties for a weekend of watching football, retelling old camp stories, hanging with Mike's fam, and enjoying the beer bars of the Quad Cities.But you never know when DISASTER WILL STRIKE.In the Rock Island Argus, I caught an AP story that's since been batted around the Internet like a ball of yarn at a cat convention. In the article, rhyme-happy Meera Selva wrote about a "catastrophe for the apostrophe" in which the city of Birmingham (England's second-largest) took a "hammer to grammar," eliminating apostrophes from all street signs, which leaves "St. Paul's Square" as "St. Pauls Square." The move is supposed to make life easier for emergency-vehicle GPS systems as well as the city council itself, which apparently was spending more time discussing apostrophes than any governmental body should.As a writing teacher/English Ph.D./language columnist, I think I am supposed to be outraged and chagrinned at this sign that the world is going to hell in a poorly punctuated bucket. And sure enough, groups like the Plain English Society see the elimination of apostrophes-from even such a small element of one city-as an apocalyptic event for language as we know it.But I am decidedly meh on this topic; I could go either way. I've read a metric buttload of student papers in my day, and if I had a chicken wing for every missing or misused apostrophe, there would be no more chickens in the world. Apostrophe confusion is the iPod of errors-it's everywhere at once. Part of me would be thrilled to be rid of apostrophes, though that may be the same part that wants to quit my job and pursue my true calling as a freelance meerkat whisperer.Still, these goofs, like all goofs, are not without reason. The apostrophe's main job is to indicate possession, but possessive its has no apostrophe. The most glaring apostrophe problem is in plural words, like if I said "The goliath bird-eating spider's are cute." But an apostrophe does (sometimes) make a word plural, as in 1980's or IED's. What sane soul could have concocted these contradictions? Even the most fervent believers in intelligent design would surely blame baffling language variety on evolutionary chaos or the "letter demons" foretold in the Necronomicon.

Clearly, I'm not pulling my weight in the peeve department, but that department does quite well without me. A few years ago, a nifty term was coined for people who get their undies in a wad about anything new or different about language: peevologist. (Whether peevologist should truly apply to the peeved or those who study the peeved is a question I'll leave to the future generations).It all started with Visual Thesaurus Executive Producer Ben Zimmer's discussion of peeveblogging and Jan Freeman's follow-up on peeve-ology in the Boston Globe, which was further developed by popular language blogger Mr. Verb. Whenever curmudgeons get out their cudgels to beat texters, unnecessary quotation-mark users, or eggcorn coiners, peevology is on the march, tsk-tsking away.I think it's a shame that so much interest in language is swaddled in the itchy blankets of peevology, maybe because that's so far from my own interest in words, which I enjoy as much as puppies, sunshine, and Bacon Explosions. Even though I tend to be a doomy bummer machine in other areas of life, I just can't get any "the-sky-is-falling" momentum going when I think about language. It's too rich. To me, looking at errors and shrieking about how dumb people are is like going into a forest and complaining that the chipmunks aren't cute enough, or some moss is the wrong shade of green. Hello, missing the big picture much?Lost in the hub and the bub of the Birmingham story is the fact that it only applies to street signs in one city. There's not much reason to think that a mono-metropolis street-sign apostro-geddon will go beyond city limits. Some say marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin-and I'd say Governor of Illinois is a gateway job to prison-but it's kind of a stretch to claim that Birmingham streets signs are a gateway genre to "utter chaos," as John Richards of the Apostrophe Protection Society foretells.Then again, you don't have to be Jane Goodall to note a whiff of language evolution in this event. Are all those apostrophe-challenged students so wrong that they'll soon be right? If you could, is there any punctuation mark you would drown in the river when no one's looking? Or must we preserve all punctuation marks, for the sake of the children, children like my friend Mike's daughters, who heard me babble far too much about apostrophes on Super Bowl weekend?Let us know, comment monkey's. What are your thought's?

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