Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Disaster of Apostrophic Proportions

[Grammar] Oh, Birmingham! How could you?

The City of Birmingham hates apostrophes. Hates them. It hates apostrophes so much that the Birmingham City Council voted to ban them from street signs and place names throughout the city.

And, of the two Birminghams that can be immediately called to mind--Birmingham, Alabama, and Birmingham, England--which Birmingham do you think perpetuated this rape of our mother tongue, the Queen's English?

Why, it was Birmingham, England. I apologize to my Alabama friends; frankly, I assumed the American city was more likely to violate the language in this way. (I meant no harm. To make up for the lapse, from now on I'll consider "y'all" to be a real word.)

Apparently, apostrophes in Birmingham, England, were causing so much confusion people were running around willy-nilly, bumping into things and falling into crevasses searching for St. Jame's Place when they should have been looking for St. James' Place. Afternoon frolics upon Acock's Green were frequently ruined by roving bands of affrontive jerks who went around insisting it was really "Acocks' Green."

From his bully pulpit as chairman of the Birmingham Transport Scrutiny Committee, Councilman Martin Mullaney complained, "If I want to go to a restaurant, I don't want to have an A-level in English to find it"--referring no doubt to the disastrous evening the Birmingham Transport Scrutiny Committee adjourned its monthly train-peering session, intending to reconvene at Arbys, a popular Greek fine-dining establishment--only to end up spending a disappointing evening at Arby's, an American fast-food franchise noted for serving a helical, potato-based delicacy known in those parts as frisée frites. (Committee undersecretary Marilyn Glaughton, who holds only a B-level in English, was summarily sacked following the cock-up.)

The council decision has prompted a backlash from the Apostrophe Protection Society. The society, founded in 2001 by John Richards, has its origins in Boston. (That's Boston, Lincolnshire, not the other one.)

I'm a big fan of the apostrophe in all its mysterious, arcane weirdness (not least for its quirky abandonment of the possessive "its"). I love criticizing its misuse. If apostrophes weren't so confusing, what would be the use of copy editors? Apostrophes create jobs. They're good for the economy.

Apostrophes may be confusing, but is that any reason to abolish them outright? If so, then society could do well to ban other confusing things, including:
  • Donald Trump's hair
  • The word "football" as applied to at least one field sport
  • Attempts to justify the application of '80s trickle-down policies to the current economic crisis
  • The Balkan Peninsula
  • The way Larry Hagman's accent gets stronger when he's invited to make a British television appearance
  • Green's Theorem
Of course, such a ban would be ridiculous: Two of the items on the above list are actually useful--and so is the apostrophe. Determining which two items is an exercise left up to the reader.

I'm going on record in full support of Mr. Richards. I wish him all the best. If there's anything I can do to help with the Birmingham situation, I hope he'll let me know.

Or should that have been "Mr Richards"? Maybe I should ask his advice in starting a Society for the Protection of Periods* Terminating Abbreviations Where the Final Letter of the Abbreviation Is Also the Final Letter of the Abbreviated Word.

* That's "Full Stops" to you, John.

—Brandon Burt


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