The apostrophe, for some reason, is one of those marks that raises hackles no matter how it is approached. I write in the Shady Characters book about a news story that ran back in 2002, when the city council of Nottingham, England, instituted an “apostrophe swear box”. Infuriated by misuse of the apostrophe by council workers, Graham Chapman, the council’s leader,
[…] challenged his chief executive, John Jackson, to pay a forfeit to charity every time a council document prepared by officers contained a grammatical error. Now all 14,000 staff have been asked to cough up £1 every time they make a mistake with the proceeds going to charity.1
I now read that Mid Devon District Council, also in England, has decided to side-step the troublesome apostrophe entirely by simply removing it from all their road signs. Beset by predictable declarations of outrage, council leader Peter Hare-Scott retorted that it has long been common for apostrophes to be omitted from signs2 — and to be fair, he has a point. Birmingham City Council, for instance, issued a similar decree back in 2009, eliciting similar howls of protest.3
The apostrophe in general has long proved to be an unstable mark of punctuation, prone to decaying into non-existence. The US ruled against possessive apostrophes in place names as far back as 1890, with Australia doing the same in 2001.3 Nor does perceived wealth, social standing, or literacy prevent apostrophe catastrophe: Harrods, Selfridges, and, lately, Waterstones have all given up their possessive apostrophes, while McDonald’s proudly flies the flag for grammatical correctness.4
In the light of all this, should we care about Mid Devon’s decision to drop the apostrophe? Instinctively I would say yes, of course; but then I look at the minuscule impact that it will make: in the entire Mid Devon district, only three street names will be affected.2 Galling it may be, but I think I’ll cope.
On Twitter, Glen Turpin points out an interesting article on the origins of the “+” and “-” signs. In “Where and When Did the Symbols “+” and “–” Originate?”, Mario Livio talks about the surprisingly recent derivations of these two symbols. It’s well worth a look!