Apostrophe rules OK

"Now children will go around Birmigham and see utter chaos" John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society

Birmingham City Council are removing its apostrophes from road signs and street names such as Kings Norton and Druids Heath (Metro, 30/1/09). The Apostrophe Protection Society condemned this as 'retrograde and dumbing down. It's a bad example to children and teachers'.
It's sad that nearly every time English is in the papers it is at this level of pettiness, railing against the 'misapplication' of a tiny range of popular prescriptive rules. When I started this blog, I intended not to get drawn into this kind of thing (in fact it's hard to find a language website that isn't obsessed by this kind of thing), but this is a very good example of self appointed 'experts' wading in and over applying their little and outdated knowledge.
The prescriptivists are mistaken for two main reasons (borrowing from David Crystal):

  1. Language varies

  2. The 'grammarians' get the rules wrong

Language varies enormously across time, across space and between and within individuals. There are in the region of 5,000 living languages which break down into an estimated 20,000 dialects, added to an untold number of dead languages and dialects. Each individual human being speaks in a slightly different way compared to their neighbours (an idiolect). An individual's language will change throughout one lifetime (compare David Attenborough's accent in the 1950s to the way he speaks now, or the Queen's). We vary our language in subtle but systematic ways according to context. Language has always changed and always will do – not just an observed fact but a necessity. It is an ecosystem of millions of variations in a permanent and enriching state of flux. If you think English needs to be preserved, remember it was created, not by grammarians imposing their rules, but largely unconsciously by generation after generation of uneducated and illiterate peasants just saying whatever they felt like saying. So how can any one language feature claim to be permanently correct?

People get the rules wrong. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing (and there is a lot of little knowledge about language), and so often an observed rule (the taxonomy that helps us find patterns in natural language, or helps students learn a foreign language) becomes a prescribed rule and the skilled native speaker is told the way they speak naturally isn't quite 'correct'. The problem is that these explicit rules are rarely completely right. An example. In many standard grammars of the 20th century, shall was considered the first person form of will; I shall and you will were correct, I will and you shall, according to self-appointed experts, were 'grammatically' wrong. Modern linguists now have a different explanation. Will and shall are separate verbs, and both can be used to talk about the future; the difference with shall is that it implies a stronger involvement of the speaker in the predicted events. So, I shall leave tomorrow means 'I will see to it that I leave'. You shall leave tomorrow means 'I will see to it that you leave'. We can see that the involvement of speaker implied by shall is quite natural in the first person I – we normally control our own destinies - but when we switch to you or they, we are imposing our will on other people and this is less acceptable. You will go to the ball can be a neutral prediction, whereas you shall go to the ball involves 'I' as the speaker as master of your fate. The difference between will and shall, then, is much more one of semantics than of grammar. As a result of this artificial rule I shall, you will, a dissonance was created between what people were told was correct and what came spontaneously to them, thus distorting the natural and useful distinction between will and shall. Nowadays, people aren't really sure of when to use them, and often shall is just an old-fashioned or formal version of will. A perfectly good pair of words that everyone was using quite happily until grammarians with half-baked ideas came along and upset the natural balance of the ecosystem. This is just one example of a half-understood rule replacing or distorting the unconscious, and (nearly always) far more subtle, sophisticated and systematic use of English that a native speaker - whatever their educational achievement - effortlessly commands. No one (not even Chomsky) is able to state all the rules of their language (certainly not enough to dictate to others), yet every native-speaker can employ them all with ease.

For a wonderfully detailed and succinct argument against prescriptivism and 'the rules', I would encourage you to read Stephen Fry's blog:http://www.stephenfry.com/blog/#more-64

Apostrophes in names.

Back to apostrophes. Should the Birmingham road signs have apostrophes or not?

There is a standard rule that NOUN+s marks a plural and NOUN+'s a possessive. Fine - that's a very reliable rule for standard English. The Apostrophe Protection Society think therefore names (including road signs) that indicate a possessive should have an apostrophe, e.g. Starbuck's, not Starbucks, King's Norton, not Kings Norton. What these apostrophe-huggers don't understand is other principles influence English apart from their one precious little rule.

Names behave differently to common nouns:

  • Names can be spelt 'wrong': Wilde, Whyte, Hogg, Kwik Save. In fact it's very usual for names to be spelt differently from their common equivalents. Like the capital letter, it serves a useful function to distinguish a name from an ordinary noun.

  • Singular things can have 'plural' names: Waters, Richards, Hills

  • Names can have possessive origin, without needing an apostrophe: Davidson, not David's Son

  • Names are arbitrary - they don't have to 'mean what they say': New Road is one of the oldest roads in many towns. Mrs Goodman could be an awful woman. You absolutely don't need to know that Napoli is Greek for new town for it to work as a name.

  • Names can exist completely outside the English language, as in foreign names, Prince's symbol name, or company logos.

English grammar is weak insude names, and this is as it should be. It's not because of 'slovenliness', but for very sound reasons that reach beyond the surface conventions of language. The only function of a name is to provide a direct reference to a particular object - a simple label or pointer - and as such it doesn't matter what form it takes. You can give your child or cat whatever name you like and spell it however you want - it doesn't need to make any sense at all beyond simply connecting itself to a single object, and with that connection, it's purpose is fulfilled. In the terminology of semantics, a name has reference, but no sense. When I say cat on its own, it has sense - I have a generic model of what a typical cat is - but I am not referring to any single cat in the real world. But when I add grammar - my cat, Bill's cat, that cat over there, the cat that lives next door - I am able to zoom in and identify one single unique instance of a 'cat': this is reference. Or, I don't need to use the word cat at all and just give it a name, such as Mimi, which has reference (it identifies a unique individual) but no sense (Mimi on its own is meaningless; it only means something if you already know it to be the name of my cat; the word cat on the other hand has sense for every speaker of English). A name, as a direct label of one unique object, does not require any internal grammar because it is does not depend on grammar for its comprehension. This is not about language rules, but the logical and universal principles that exist independently of any language. By artificially enforcing an apostrophe rule in names, the grammatical do-gooders are fighting a losing battle against far greater forces. Grammar is necessary in order for words with sense (abstract, general, 'dictionary' meaning) to take on reference (labelling a unique object); grammar is superfluous for a name, because it already possesses intrinsic reference. In other words, grammar is necessary to helps us understand what people are talking about, but with names the job is already done for us.

So why do some names have apostrophes, and some not?

Although we have established that names are a low-gravity zone for grammar, we can detect some principled forces at work in the application of apostrophes in names.

There are 'degrees of possession' in names. This is related to how much internal meaning we see in the names.

  1. Bill's Cafe is very much possessive – we are invited to picture Bill standing proudly in an apron next to his cafe. This name is clearly descriptive - a cafe owned by Bill. It has a meaning (sense) as well as being a name. Therefore the name has an apostrophe to aid this description.

  2. Sainsbury's: again the apostrophe is used in the name. While Lord Sainsbury may seem a more distant figure than Bill, we still sense (or the company wants you to think) that this is a shop founded by someone called Sainsbury.

  3. Starbucks: here, no apostrophe - a name that APS thinks is wrong. But the cafe does not belong to Starbuck (being a fictional character in Moby Dick) - it is just a name - so we feel less obligation to use the possessive. Same with Boots.

  4. Tesco: here the 'official' name is Tesco, but it is commonly referred to as Tesco's (Marks and Spencer is similar). We don't mean to imply that it is a shop owned by Tesco in the way that Bill does, but we do like to add an 's to the end.

  5. ASDA: here both the official and common names are without s - I'm not aware of it being called ASDA's. Another example is Holland and Barrett - clearly names of people, but no s. We see them as wholly proper names.

  6. There is an element of 'free variation' (where no principles seem to apply), as you would expect with the arbitrary nature of names, and their weak demand for grammar. So the index of the London A-Z reveals St James Road, St James' Road and St James's Road. I have a sneaking suspicion that the older a name is, the more it loses its grammar (as is the case with compound nouns moving from 2 words door handle, to hypenated hat-trick, to one fused word cupboard). Maybe someone could investigate.

But if Starbucks and Boots are not possessive or plural, then why is s added to the end? I would suggest that there is a strong tradition for shops and cafes to end with s. Maybe it evokes a cosy image of Bill, the proud proprietor, a distant echo of the times of owner-shopkeepers, hints of a possession that no longer fully applies; maybe it's just habit; maybe it just rolls off the tongue easier. Starbucks and Boots sound cosier than Starbuck or Boot, more reflective of a welcoming establishment, while Starbuck's and Boot's assert an ownership (through the overly grammatical - and common -apostrophe) that is unjustified in what is simply a name. The Apostrophe Preservation Society wants to remove our ability to express such nuances in our naming.

So, Birmingham signposts. The only 'correct' solution is to follow common law - if most locals spell or punctuate a name one way then that can be the only arbiter. What Birmingham has found is that there is too much disagreement, so it is imposing a blanket rule for consistencey - no apostrophe. And this as well reflects a trend in modern English to minimise punctuation - if it doesn't make things clearer - leave out the punctuation (this blog - by putting language examples in italics, not quotes, follows this trend). But the nature of names allows too much variation to please everybody.

In summary, the rule for a possessive apostrophe applies strongly to common nouns where they have a useful grammatical function, but not so strictly to names, where there is a degree of variation consistent with (i) the freedom to give any name we like to an individual object, (ii) the varying degrees of descriptiveness and possession we feel is appropriate for that name. Having this ability to negotiate a compromise between competing forces in the language enables the uninhibited user to refine effectively and largely unconsciously their expressive power of the language that the self appointed guardians of 'correctness' would have us do away with. It is the Apostrophe Protection Society that is 'dumbing down' with its over simplistic and over-applied surface rules; if we were to accept their rules we would actually be restricting the English language, and breaking deeper and stronger rules that they choose to ignore because they weren't told about them at school. But that won't happen because these stronger forces win out over imposed or artificial rules. When speakers break the apparent rules, an intelligent linguist humbly sees this as a pointer to a wider set of rules and principles that are far richer, that are consistent with other areas of language, and that have far more enduring and satisfying power to explain than the petty rules that blinker the amateur prescriptive grammarian.

Below Birmingham: 'chaos'

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