Apostrophes now: Britain at war over missing punctuation

A letter with an apostrophe

LONDON - A bizarre battle is raging in towns across Britain between lovers of the English language and local councils that are culling the humble apostrophe from street signs.

The historic university city of Cambridge was the latest in a series of places this year that have made the change, which transforms names such as King's Road into Kings Road.

Cambridge was forced to backtrack after anonymous punctuation protectors mounted a guerrilla campaign, going out in the dead of night and using black marker pens to fill in the missing apostrophes.

The punctuation pogrom by several municipalities is apparently in response to central government advice aimed at helping the work of the emergency services.

Earlier this year a teenager died of an asthma attack after an apostrophe error led to an ambulance going to the wrong address.

"National guidelines recommended not allocating new street names that required any punctuation, as, we gather, this was not well coped with by some emergency services' software," Tim Ward of Cambridge City Council told AFP.

"Given the public interest that this awakened we checked back on the national guidelines that we'd followed when reviewing our policy, and found that the guideline recommending against including punctuation in new street names had been dropped."

In countries such as the United States and Australia, apostrophes disappeared from street signs long ago.

But moves to do the same in Britain have aroused the ire of the guardians of the English language.

'Commas will be next'

Kathy Salaman, director of The Good Grammar Company, a Cambridge-based organisation that provides training to companies, said the issue was not one of pedantry but of upholding wider standards.

"If they take our apostrophes, commas will be next," she said.

"In Britain the tendency is now that if something is too difficult, let's get rid of it. Why are we trying to improve literacy when actually in real life people say it doesn't really matter?"

Salaman defended the word-warriors who had restored punctuation to street signs.

"If the apostrophe needs to be there, I don't think it's vandalism because I would say the language is being vandalised," she said.

While Cambridge may have rescinded its apostrophe apocalypse, national authorities said that they still prefer street signs without punctuation.

GeoPlace, the organisation that oversees the production and maintenance of Britain's national address and street gazetteers, said the final decision rests with local councils.

"However, the Data Entry Conventions documentation does state that GeoPlace would prefer not to receive data (including street names) with punctuation," it said in a statement, citing machine readability and usability by emergency services as the reasons.

Dozens of local councils around the country are still waging war on the apostrophe, campaigners say.

"It's serious," said John Richard, founder and chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

"I don't know why their computers couldn't be trained to recognise an apostrophe."

He also lamented a decline in general standards.

"I think people are very lazy or very ignorant and the language is declining, is getting worse," he said.

"It is setting a very bad example because teachers are teaching our children punctuation and then they see road signs with apostrophes removed."

Several councils have consulted the Plain English Campaign, an independent group that has fought for clearer use of the language for more than three decades, to see what they think.

Tony Maher, the group's general manager, said apostrophes were a problem for many people.

"Personally, I would leave the street names as they are in the hope that our children learn how to use apostrophes correctly. I still see shops with 'greengrocers' apostrophes' emblazoned in their windows such as 'Apple's - 20p, Orange's 25p, Sock's £2' and so on," he said.

"I think it is one argument that will continue for many years to come."