Birmingham(')s grammatical heresy

Local and national news have reported on the decision of Birmingham City Council to abandon the use of apostrophes in street signs because 'its staff spend too much time dealing with complaints about grammar'; Apostrophes abolished by council, Theyve gone nut's, City drops apostrophes from signs.

The news has brought a lively debate to the fore which can trace it's recent origins to the popular 2003 book by Lynne Truss, 'Easts, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation' with competing views on the need to leave or remove apostrophes from words.

The 2007 Guardian Style Book provides this helpful guide to apostrophes on p.22. The styleguide is available online at As the guide notes, "The “apostrofly’’ – the rogue insect that I can claim to have discovered – continues to alight in unlikely spots. A fairly long entry on the apostrophe attempts to put it in its (no apostrophe) place: we shall keep trying."

These indicate a missing letter or letters (can’t, we’d) or a possessive
(David’s book).

Some shops use an apostrophe, wrongly, to indicate a plural (“pea’s”), but will generally omit the apostrophe when one is actually required (“new seasons asparagus”), a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the greengrocer’s (or grocer’s) apostrophe. Try to avoid this.

Contractions can affect the tone of a piece and make it appear informal and even inelegant: “what’s more” may work in a lighthearted column but “what is more” may be more appropriate for a leading article.

The possessive in words and names ending in S normally takes an apostrophe followed by a second S (Jones’s, James’s), but be guided by pronunciation and use the plural apostrophe where it helps:
Mephistopheles’, Waters’, Hedges’ rather than Mephistopheles’s, Waters’s, Hedges’s.

Plural nouns that do not end in S take an apostrophe and S in the possessive: children’s games, old folk’s home, people’s republic, etc.

Phrases such as butcher’s knife, collector’s item, cow’s milk, goat’s cheese, pig’s blood, hangman’s noose, writer’s cramp, etc are treated as singular.

Use apostrophes in phrases such as two days’ time, 12 years’ imprisonment and six weeks’ holiday, where the time period (two days) modifies a noun (time), but not in nine months pregnant or three weeks old, where the time period is adverbial (modifying an adjective such as pregnant or old) – if in doubt, test with a singular
such as one day’s time, one month pregnant.

Finally, if anyone tries to tell you that apostrophes don’t matter and we’d be better off without them, consider these four phrases, each of which means something different:
my sister’s friend’s investments
my sisters’ friends’ investments
my sisters’ friend’s investments
my sister’s friends’ investments

The decision by the City Council means that any future signs produced by the council will not contain the punctuation mark. For Birmingham residents this is sure to bring arguments over whether suburbs such as Kings Norton should be King's Norton or even Kings' Norton. There are many Heath's too with Druids Heath and Kings Heath also likely to benefit or perhaps suffer from this punctuation decision. One thing is certain, consistency is welcome - though not perhaps for all. John Richards of the Apostrophe Protection Society described the decision as "absolute defeatism."

This is setting a terrible example," Mr Richards said. "It seems retrograde, dumbing down really. All over Birmingham, and in other cities, teachers are trying to teach children correct grammar and punctuation. Now children will go around Birmingham and see utter chaos."

Martin Mullaney, a councillor who chairs the City's transportation scrutiny committee has investigated the use of apostrophe himself and notes that the Plain English Society and Plain Language Commission have said there is no rule in Britain with regards to possessive apostrophes in place names.

[he] pointed out that Birmingham had been quietly phasing out apostrophes since the 1950s. However, he admitted that the new official city-wide policy would distress many residents.

"We are constantly getting residents asking for apostrophes to be put back in and as a council we have got to make a decision one way or another," Mr Mullaney said.


Anonymous said…
I've read through your post looking for traces of irony, but cannot say that I've found any. It looks as though you are serious about the tone and content.

If so, it looks like we have finally arrived at the moment when someone breaks it to you - gently, I hope - that you've been adding apostrophes to the possessive form of it for, erm, ever.

The most recent instance can be found in this line:
The news has brought a lively debate to the fore which can trace it's recent origins to the popular 2003 book by Lynne Truss.

The apostrophe is grammatically incorrect (according to all the guidance I've seen).

However, in these next two lines you take the correct approach:

its staff spend too much time dealing with complaints about grammar,


A fairly long entry on the apostrophe attempts to put it in its (no apostrophe) place: we shall keep trying.

The last bit of that sentence does hint at a welcome change in practice. I hope that's what you were referring to.

There are a couple of other things I should point out while on the topic. A very minor typo in someone's book title, and a mix-n-match approach to quotation styles.

I apologise for bringing this up in such a public way, but if anyone else has noted the previous deviousness with apostrophes, this note might speak for them as well.
Simon Felton said…
Ah, you've found me out.

There was some irony in there, particularly as my own grammar is a little rusty. I also have a bad habbit of conferring capital letters to names where they shouldn't but that's for another discussion.

Glad to see we haven't all abandoned grammar in favour of text speak.

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