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Lets Chill Out About Apostrophes

The North Yorkshire Council in England has been in the hot seat recently for its changes to street signs — not because of anything on them, but rather because of something left off. One street in the town of Harrogate was rendered as St. Marys Walk. No apostrophe. Outrage ensued.

The problem, punctilious observers argued, was that the nearby church is and always will be St. Mary’s — with an apostrophe, thank you very much — and leaving that bit of punctuation out of the name of the road obscures that vital and historical connection. Plus it’s just plain ignorant.

St. Marys Walk was just the beginning. It turns out the county plans to phase out apostrophes on all street signs, in part “to prevent complications while searching on databases,” an official told my Times colleague Jenny Gross.

The intensity of the debate may seem surprising. How many people would really miss the connection between St. Marys Walk and St. Mary’s Church? Language lives in, and on, context, and the context here is unmistakable. The truth is, apostrophes in general don’t make our language much clearer. We could really do without most of them.

Their deployment is governed by some rather fine rules — is it “my uncle’s book” or “my uncles’ book”? “It’s” or “its”? — that take a bit of effort to master. As such, their proper use conveys precision but also something else, something harder to put one’s finger on. I admit that seeing anyone over the age of 15 use its instead of it’s, or your instead of you’re, makes me wince a little. But it shouldn’t.

English seemed to get along just fine without apostrophes until the 1500s. Chaucer wouldn’t have known one if it bit him. The first edition of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” had it as “Loues Labors Loſt” (also, life went on with u standing for both u and v). Of course, no one was missing electricity, microchips or “Family Guy” episodes either, despite how useful they would have been.

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