“Childrens’ Garden — No Ball Games, Cycling, Dogs” reads a sign published with a recent story in The Guardian, an English daily newspaper, informing readers that “the sometimes vexing question of where and when to add an apostrophe appears to have been solved in one corner of Devon: The local authority is planning to do away with them altogether.”
Eastern Long Island has more in common with Devon than the name of an Amagansett neighborhood and a yacht club. Like us, it is, according to Wikipedia, “the only county in England to have two coastlines,with bays for fishing and seaside towns that attract tourists.” So should East Hampton follow the lead of Devon, England, on punctuation?
Although Devon seems to be targeting only street names, The Guardian reported on March 15, “the news of the Tory-controlled council’s (apostrophe required) decision provoked howls of condemnation . . . from champions of plain English, fans of grammar, and politicians.” A spokesman for the Plain English Campaign remarked that it would set a bad example for children being taught punctuation in school “only to see it not being used correctly on street signs.”
Adopting an anti-apostrophe policy aimed at reducing potential confusion over street names also alarmed Ben Bradshaw, a former culture secretary and member of Parliament, who condemned it on Twitter. “Tory Mid Devon Council bans the apostrophe to avoid confusion — Whole point of proper grammar is to avoid confusion!”
Rogue apostrophes can certainly make a writer or broadcaster appear less than competent. Much of the trouble seems to arise from someone thinking an apostrophe is necessary to create a plural, as when a shop advertises “tea’s and coffee’s” or a restaurant announces it is “open Sunday’s,” or a television weather report broadcasts an alert on todays “low’s.” Anyone immortalizing in print the word “potato’s” or “tomato’s” is in danger of being mocked as a real Dan Quayle.
There are further good reasons for maintaining apostrophes. In most cases, they are informative. Take Roses Grove Road in Southampton, for example. I don’t recall ever seeing it with an apostrophe, so (as I am not steeped in Southampton lore) it’s impossible to know whether the road had a lot of roses on it at one time or was named for a woman or family called Rose.
At The Star, we try mightily to hold on to original apostrophes and original meanings, relying on history and common usage, even though sources are often obscure and sometimes contradictory. Note: It’s Sayre’s Path and Hand’s Creek Road, for example.
In the ordinary vernacular of East Hamptoners, we talk about Buell Lane even though the street is labeled Buell’s Lane on one frequently used local map and Buells on another. (I blame the mapmakers. They have also managed to misplace the entire name of Gardiner’s Bay — a whole other kettle of nomenclature.)
Not far off Three Mile Harbor Road, a popular restaurant is Michaels’ at Maidstone, signifying more than one Michael involved and that they both are, or were, owners. (When I first saw the logo, however, I wanted to move the little airborne comma between the “L” and the “S.”) Meanwhile, in Bridgehampton, the logo for Marders Nursery has long since dropped an apostrophe between the “R” and the “S,” and who are we to insist on putting one in just because we know the family name is Marder?
Barneys New York did something similar a decade or two ago, apparently because the marketing department thought it just looked better that way on packaging and bags.
As in Britain, apostrophes are slowly but surely going out of style on this side of the pond, too, and not only in street names but in words where they can make all the difference. There is your versus you’re, of course. I cry blue murder if a wrong it’s (versus its) shows up in the pages of The Star. But the truth is I myself have knowingly left out an apostrophe in an it’s while texting, assuming that the recipient would understand when I didn’t mean to word to be possessive. Maybe I should cut to the chase and blame computers.
I might not agree with her on the subject of the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), but on the subject of apostrophes I have to agree with Lynne Truss, the author of the best-selling “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” in which she wrote, “No matter that you have a Ph.D. and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing: Good food at it’s best, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave.”