An English city eliminates apostrophes from street signs. Some are not happy.

Malcolm Wood, an English teacher in North Yorkshire, did a double take recently as he passed along a quiet street, St. Mary's Walk. The new road signs did not have an apostrophe.

The change, part of North Yorkshire Council's move to phase out apostrophes from road signs, sparked dissent in Harrogate, a Victorian spa town in northern England. Soon after the new sign was erected, someone drew an apostrophe on it.

“If you delete the apostrophe, what happens next?” said Mr. Wood, who has spent years teaching students the rules of English grammar. “Commas? And that's that?” He asked, “Do we only use emojis?”

North Yorkshire Council has said its policy of phasing out apostrophes is not new.

“We appreciate that residents appreciate the meaning and history behind official street names, which often date back centuries, and that the removal of punctuation is seen as a reduction in standards,” Karl Battersby, director of environment, said on Thursday of the municipality, in a statement. . “However, the decision has advantages, such as helping to prevent complications when searching databases.” He said the council would look into the matter.

Andrew Jones, Member of Parliament for Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency in North Yorkshire, sent a letter to the council leader on Wednesday on behalf of several constituents who had complained to him that apostrophes had been removed from signs in St Mary's Walk. and King's Road in Harrogate.

“We invest time, effort and money to educate children about the correct use of punctuation, so our councils should use it correctly too,” Jones said in a statement that urged the council to reverse its policy.

The apostrophe policy was reported last month by a local news site, The Stray Ferret, after a resident complained about the posting of the new sign for St. Mary's Walk.

While some grammarians claimed that apostrophes were as essential as correct spelling, others claimed that they served no real purpose.

John McWhorter, a linguist and associate professor at Columbia University, said he cringes a little when he sees an overused apostrophe, but is never confused about the writer's meaning.

“Ultimately, you can't consistently argue that apostrophes help provide clarity,” said Dr. McWhorter, who writes a weekly column for The New York Times. They are simply “a sort of decoration,” he added.

Dr. McWhorter said apostrophes are the “fish forks” of punctuation. “They just sit there, you're not quite sure how to use them; you're almost sure you're using them the wrong way.

Apostrophes crept into written English for arbitrary reasons, Dr. McWhorter said. “It's another way of looking down on people who have never quite mastered the 'this' and the 'is,' when really we should be thinking about how effectively they get their message across.”

Debates over the use of grammar evoke strong feelings because language is an important part of identity, said Ellie Rye, a professor of English at the University of York in England. However, in the history of the English language, apostrophes are “quite modern,” she said. They were not used to mark possession until the 16th century, in a limited way, and more widely in the 17th or 18th century, Dr Rye said.

Over the years, apostrophes have been dropped from the names of some British shops, such as one of Harrogate's most popular shops, Bettys Café Tea Rooms, which removed the apostrophe decades ago. British bookshop Waterstones, founded by Tim Waterstone, dropped the apostrophe from its name in 2012.

Bob McCalden, president of the Apostrophe Protection Society, a small British group focused on promoting the correct use of the apostrophe, said he has no problem with companies dropping apostrophes from their names, but phasing them out of street names is “ cultural vandalism”. “

Removing the apostrophe from St. Mary's Walk has obscured the history of the street, which is named for the nearby St. Mary's Church, he said. “We should recognize and celebrate our social history, rather than trying to erase it.”

Mr McCalden said he was drafting a letter to the chief executive of North Yorkshire Council to try to persuade him to reverse his decision. There is some precedent: ten years ago, Cambridge City Council reversed its decision to remove apostrophes from new street names. Last year, after residents complained that the new sign for St. Mary's Terrace did not have an apostrophe, local leaders replaced the sign with one that included one.

Rebecca Evans, a writer from Harrogate, recognized that languages ​​change over time. But she said the reason the city gave for changing the signs wasn't compelling. “It's a little sad if computer software dictates the way the language of the city is changing,” she said.

Mr. McCalden, who is also a retired information technology director, wondered what computer system couldn't handle apostrophes. He said that in the case of the post office, for example, it wasn't as if postal workers were saying about their computer system, “Oh dear, it crashed because we found an apostrophe in a street name.”

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