Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Apropos of nothing ...

... except to show that red literati can be as big old geeky language freaks as anyone, I have to weigh in today on the latest threat to my beloved, endangered apostrophe. As reported in Moby Lives and elsewhere, England's second biggest city has officially pronounced the punctuation mark denoting possession obsolete. Street signs in Birmingham will no longer employ apostrophes. According to the Associated Press report, this is the final step in an ongoing deterioration.
It seems that Birmingham officials have been taking a hammer to grammar for years, quietly dropping apostrophes from street signs since the 1950s. Through the decades, residents have frequently launched spirited campaigns to restore the missing punctuation to signs denoting such places as "St. Pauls Square" or "Acocks Green."
City Councilor Martin Mullaney's brilliant explanation for the definitive ouster of the apostrophe:
Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed. More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant I don't want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.
Mullaney touches on an important topic that I should comment on more one of these days, questions about whose language it is and who decides proper usage and how the living language changes and how the class divide affects language and which class controls language and which class has access to language and so on and so forth. However, it's hard for me to believe that these municipal politicians are acting on behalf of the working-class struggle to liberate English, and to me his comment smacks more than a little of condescension. (Also, I can't help but snarkily point out, he should have said "more important" and not "more importantly," but hey, using the adverb instead of the adjective is an extremely common error.)

Yet hark! The apostrophe's adherents are many, and they are not going down without a fight. I did a google search on "the endangered apostrophe" and got 5,100 results, including whole websites devoted to this very issue.

There is another less noted but just as pernicious threat to the apostrophe: its overuse. For all the times the apostrophe is omitted when it ought to denote possession, it is inserted where it has no business being, before the s making a word plural. As in "I bought three apple's" or "It's hard keeping all these ball's in the air" or ... well, you get the idea. Idea's. Oy vey.