The Queen’s English – The End is Near!

They have always been something of an affront, those signs that say: “Penns Landing”, “Mens Room” or “Citizens Bank”.  A sign maker, perhaps unconsciously, has neglected in each case to put the apostrophe before the “s”.  We have to wonder whether the person who left the apostrophe out of week’s in the movie “Two Weeks Notice” did so out of ignorance;  just imagine the billions of times that grammatical insult has been repeated in the movie’s advertisement.  Is it the end of the world?  Obviously not.  Is it slovenly?  Most assuredly.

But is also seems inevitable in this day of text messages with its fresh wave of (often noxious) abbreviations that something as small and “insignificant” as the apostrophe is being unceremoniously dumped.  And we are all the poorer for it as our Mother Tongue suffers yet another body-blow and becomes a little bit less precise.

And now, from all places, England!, comes news that the city of Birmingham council has decreed that the apostrophe is banished from all street signs (as in “St. Mark’s Square”).  Apparently, it has been the subject of hot debate, this tiny mark; and the councilman in charge of streets said, “. . . after yet another interminable debate . . . I had to make a final decision (to eliminate it) . . . we have other (obviously, more important) things to do.”

If we look at the words above, Penns is hardly the plural of William Penn’s name; it is nothing, just so many letters.  And, for anyone who has noticed, Men is a perfectly suitable plural of man, and adding an “s” with no apostrophe creates a nonsensical group of letters.  (Mens is a Latin word; and as a lawyer I always want to add rea, as in mens rea which in our criminal courts means “guilty intent” but has nothing to do with restrooms.)

I am quick to admit, however, that as bad as omitting the apostrophe is, it is only a tiny fraction as bad as adding them where they do not belong, as in “apple’s for sale” (a favorite on the hand-painted signs along the Blackhorse Pike) or “the dog bit it’s owner” (“it’s” normally is a contraction of �it is� which is certainly not intended here).  Probably as many as half the people who omit the apostrophe do so intentionally (as in Birmingham); but none of those who insert it where it does not belong has any idea of what he or she is doing.  Since it takes a bit of extra effort to add it where it does not belong, why do they bother?

– Ken Butera

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