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A Word, Please: Grammar is a matter of the popular vote

April 12, 2013|By June Casagrande

The Mid Devon District Council in southwestern England made headlines recently when it proposed to do away with apostrophes on street signs, changing King's Crescent into Kings Crescent and St. Paul's Square into St. Pauls Square.

Regular readers of this column can make an educated guess about where I stand on this. As I often say, language evolution can look like an atrocity in the short term. But looking at the big picture, you see that "errors" are how the language evolves. In language, all things that are now right were once wrong. Trying to resist this process is silly.

Anyone who's read my ramblings along these lines might surmise that I have no problem with the council's proposal. That guess would be wrong. On the contrary, I think it's a rotten idea, but not for the obvious reasons.

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It's not because I believe our current rules for forming possessives should be protected. Actually, those rules stink.

English gives not one but four special jobs to the letter S, two of which pair it with an apostrophe.

The letter S is used to conjugate verbs (I walk, he walks, she walks). It's used to form plurals (one dog, two dogs). It's paired with an apostrophe to stand in for the verb "is" or "has."(He's wonderful. It's been fun.) And finally, S pairs with an apostrophe to form possessives of nouns (the dog's tail).

This last job is complicated by a different system for pronouns that make "its," not "it's," possessive and yet another system for plural possessives (the students' essays).

With rules this chaotic, it's no surprise that apostrophe use seems to be eroding. Technology could be driving another nail in the apostrophe's coffin, with URLs like macys.com dropping apostrophes. Plus, many professional publishers now prefer farmers market and teachers college to farmers' market and teachers' college.

The system is a mess and, if it's falling apart, history suggests it will (eventually) be replaced by something better. Sure, there will be confusion in the meantime. But there's plenty of confusion now. In the long term, an apostrophe shakeup would likely create a better system than the one we labor under every day.

Nor does my objection to the Mid Devon proposal reflect a belief that governments should promote proper English or even set a good example. Governments have no business policing the language or even promoting good grammar and punctuation.

They should, however, use it.

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