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Don’t Ban the Apostrophe!

The apostrophe has been banned from street signs in Birmingham, England. The reason? According to a story by Jon Swaine, published online at, city council members spent too much time arguing over that punctuation mark. Debate apparently snarled over issues such as Kings Norton vs. King’s Norton vs. Kings’ Norton. No doubt the council has more important problems to solve.

But they could have taken a less drastic approach. Applying a couple of simple rules could have saved them from the embarrassment of public signs that say “St. Pauls Square.” Who is St. Pauls?

To figure out where the apostrophe goes or doesn’t go, use an of phrase. For example, with St. Pauls Square, ask yourself:

Is it the square of St. Paul? If the answer is yes, it’s St. Paul’s Square.
Is it the square of St. Pauls (more than one St. Paul)? If the answer is yes, it’s St. Pauls’ Square.
Is it the square of St. Paul or St. Pauls? If the answer is no one knows or cares anymore, it’s St. Pauls Square. (This answer is unlikely because of the popularity of St. Paul.)

For Kings Norton:

Is it the Norton of the King or the Kings? According to Wikipedia, Kings Norton “derives its name from the Norman period” and means “‘north farmland or settlement’ belonging to or held by the king.”

Long ago people could say it was the “Norton of the King”–or King’s Norton. Over the centuries the land belonged to many kings, one king at a time. In the 21st century when we ask “Is it the Norton of the King or the Kings?” the answer is surely “Who cares? What’s a Norton?”  Therefore, Kings Norton makes sense.

I empathize with Birmingham’s council. Like the council, I get lots of comments from passionate punctuators and grammarians eager to argue a point. Still, I urge the council to reconsider its decision. Why not create a board of English overseers, language experts whose responsibility is to research the language issues of the city and make final decisions on them? I’m all for it.

But what do I know? I’m just an American–not a speaker of the Queen’s English–or if you live in Birmingham today, the Queens English.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

3 comments on “Don’t Ban the Apostrophe!”

  • I have a pet peeve of making sure my last name includes its proper apostrophe on computer systems where I must have a record (the salon, an association I’m a member of, the DMV, etc.). Sometimes it doesn’t work out, because many computer systems are not programmed to read an apostrophe as a field data character, instead it becomes garbled as an extra character within the programming code for processing that field data. For example, I often-times experience a processing error while entering personal data on online forms, unless I go back and re-enter the my last name excluding the apostrophe.

  • Except the debate is not about who St Paul was or how many kings owned a field.
    It’s about whether the driver of an emergency vehicle can quickly and unambiguously type an address into a satellite navigation and get where they are going as quickly as possible.
    As the previous poster has pointed out, computer systems don’t handle non-alphanumeric symbols well, so where lives area at stake it’s best to dispense with them.

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