The Possessive Apostrophe

There was a small amount of press reporting last week (it must have been a slow news day!) when a local council somewhere in the West Country decided to drop the possessive apostrophe from its road signs to “avoid confusion”. The BBC subsequently followed the story up today (Sunday) on their breakfast programme by interviewing a language expert and someone from the Plain English Campaign.

Needless to say, the Plain English Campaign representative thought the idea of dropping any apostrophe (possessive or otherwise) was outrageous. He suggested, quite correctly, that there was a huge difference between Bakers, Baker’s or Bakers’ Street but somewhat reduced the weight of his argument when he could only cite historical research as an example of where the various meanings might matter.

The language expert on the other hand, as you’d expect, was far more relaxed about the whole affair especially as it only involved road signs. He countered the Plain English Campaigner’s premise by mentioning Earl’s Court and Barons Court as being two adjacent London Underground Stations where the origins of the names are unknown and the apostrophe in one and lack in the other doesn’t really help.

Now, trusting that the manager of my gym doesn’t read blogs, I have been know to deface the odd poster or two. The staff in my local gym insist on displaying posters entitled ‘Members Notice’. Now without the apostrophe this, to an old pedant like me anyway, is a statement that members of the gym notice. I suppose if you were to add an exclamation mark you could take it as an abbreviation of the imperative ‘Members Take Notice!’ Whatever the case it is wrong and despite correcting the occasional poster with an indelible marker the staff don’t appear to have taken the hint.

I fully accept that the missing apostrophe in a notice to gym members is hardly earth-shattering but what happens when such mistakes are made in legal or official documents? Lawyers are paid enough already for arguing about what was intended by legislators and will makers. Grammatical errors in such cases can mean, in the extreme, miscarriages of justice and the beneficiaries of wills not getting their due inheritance.

So I think on balance I don’t really mind too much if it’s St. James, St. James’ or St. James’s Park – I think we all accept it is a park associated to St. James in some way or other and only a determined historian would worry if he owned it or not and if that ownership had been correctly expressed. What does worry me is that those who are not properly versed in the rules of grammar and punctuation are vulnerable when it comes to reading and signing documents prepared by those that are.

So by all means ignore all the rules when you send a text message (not to me though!) but be careful when preparing or reading documents where the meaning is now, or going to be in the future, of great importance. You can’t be careful if you don’t know the rules in the first place!

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