March 21, 2013

Grammar War declared in Britain: first Waterstones, now Mid Devon street signs


The township of Mid Devon is working to ban apostrophes from its street signs, the Telegraph reports. Three street signs in Devon will be affected: Beck’s Square and Blundell’s Avenue in Tiverton, and St George’s Well in Collumpton. The Council argues that apostrophes may lead to confusion, especially in times of emergency. This polarizing issue has split the UK in two. The New York Times blog went so far as to proclaim it a “grammar war.”

Birmingham banned apostrophes from its street signs in 2009, arguing that complaints about street sign grammar were taking up too much of its employees’ time (see also William Langley’s editorial in the Telegraph). As we reported in January 2012, Waterstones made a bold move in dropping the apostrophe from its brand name. Outrage reigned in the UK, and that anger has risen again with the news in Mid Devon.

A local proofreader,  Mary de Vere Taylor from Ashburton, protests:

“It’s almost as though somebody with a giant eraser is literally trying to erase punctuation from our consciousness,” she said.

“To me there’s something terribly British and terribly reassuring about well-written and well-punctuated writing.

“Some may say I should get a life and get out more but if I got out more and saw place names with no apostrophes where there should be I shudder to think how I’d react.”

Ms de Vere Taylor said while she accepted language had to evolve, she felt the council’s decision was a backwards step.

The Guardian quotes Ben Bradshaw on Twitter:

Ben Bradshaw, the former culture secretary and Labour MP for Exeter, condemned the plans on Twitter. He wrote a precisely punctuated tweet: “Tory Mid Devon Council bans the apostrophe to ‘avoid confusion’… Whole point of proper grammar is to avoid confusion!”

The Scotsman interviewed the heads of the Plain English Campaign and the Apostrophe Protection Society, who were outspoken after the Waterstones announcement:

Steve Jenner, spokesman for the Plain English Campaign, said: “It is as if the council is saying it simply doesn’t fancy apostrophes now.

“What if they don’t like commas or full stops or capital letters? There is no need to murder the apostrophe, it is very much needed in the English language.”

John Richards, founder and chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, said: “It is appalling, disgusting and pointless, they have no regard for the English language.

George Bernard Shaw, who staunchly opposed the apostrophe, must be giggling in his grave today. He wrote, “There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of papering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”



Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.