The Curious Case of the Evolving Apostrophe

Possessive apostrophesTechnology Review’s physics arXiv blog:

Last year, grammatical tragedy struck in the heart of England when Birmingham City Council decreed that apostrophes were to be forever banished from public addresses. To the horror of purists and pedants alike, place names such as St Paul’s Square were banned and unceremoniously replaced with an apostrophe-free version: St Pauls Square.

The council’s reasoning was that nobody understands apostrophes and their misuse was so common in public signs that they were a hindrance to effective navigation. Anecdotes abounded of ambulance drivers puzzling over how to enter St James’s Street into a GPS navigation system while victims of heart attacks, strokes and hit ‘n’ run drivers passed from this world into the (presumably apostrophe-free) next.

Why the confusion? Part of the reason is that apostrophes are not particularly common in the English language: In French they occur at a rate of more than once per sentence on average. In English, they occur about once in every 20 sentences. So English speakers get less practice.

But the rules governing apostrophes are also more complex in English. In both French and English, apostrophes indicate a missing letter, such as the missing i in that’s or the v in e’er. But in English, apostrophes also indicate the possessive (or genitive) case. They are used to show that one noun owns another: St James’s Street is the street belonging to St James.

Read More: Technology Review’s physics arXiv blog

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