The apostrophe has been banned from street signs in Birmingham, England. The reason? According to a story by Jon Swaine, published online at Telegraph.co.uk, 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.