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January 19, 2014

I see that Cambridge City Council is in the news, because they have decided to omit apostrophes from street signs, and traditionalists are outraged. Well, I’m a bit of a traditionalist in these matters myself, and I’m not outraged. What irks me is apostrophes in the wrong place, not their omission. A sign reading Christs Pieces wouldn’t bother me at all; but one reading Christ’s Piece’s would make me fume and fret.

It’s often said by defenders of the apostrophe that it allows for precision, because its position can show whether a noun is singular or plural: if the apostrophe occurs before the s, the noun is singular, and if it comes after the s, the noun is plural. There is a nice, possibly apocryphal anecdote featuring George Bernard Shaw that illustrates the point. Apparently, Shaw was travelling on a train in a No Smoking carriage, and a woman opposite asked him: “Would you object if I smoked?”

Shaw is said to have replied: “As long as you don’t object if I am sick.”

The woman bristled, and said: “Do you know who I am? I am one of the railway directors’ wives!”

To which Shaw replied: “Madam, I wouldn’t care if you were his only wife.”

Obviously this ambiguity could only occur in speech; in writing, the apostrophe makes it clear that there are several directors and the woman is married to only one of them. Fair enough – but how often do such misunderstandings really occur? Not so often that we need an equivalent of the apostrophe in spoken English. Interestingly, Shaw himself thought apostrophes unnecessary, and often didn’t use them. I think we could get along without it, and I sometimes think that would be preferable to seeing it promiscuously dotted about in the wrong places.

In any case, the argument about precision doesn’t apply in the case of Cambridge place-names: what possible ambiguity could be caused by a missing apostrophe there? So I won’t be joining the chorus of outrage from traditionalists on this one. And yet… I’m not prepared to abandon apostrophes myself. Yet.

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One Comment
  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Not on the subject of apostrophes, but it reminded me of the story of the late Clement Freud who once challenged a woman who was smoking in a non – smoking carriage. In his lugubrious way he asked her to stop, to which she replied by saying that he shouldn’t mind as she was only a few feet from the smoking carriage. Freud responded that as he was standing only a few feet from the toilet, she presumably wouldn’t mind if he pissed on the carpet in front of her.

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