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An apoplexy over apostrophes in Cambridge, England

A policy to remove apostrophes from signs in the learned English town has touched off a firestorm – and sent vigilante grammarians into the streets with markers in hand.

CAMBRIDGE, England  If any place should set the standard for good grammar, it ought to be the English city of Cambridge, where the university’s brick-and-ivy walls preserve centuries of the world’s highest learning.

So when the public caught wind of a little-noticed rule passed by the Cambridge City Council to drop apostrophes from future street signs to make for more efficient public services, the pedants took to the streets – some literally.

One group dubbed the “Grammar Guerrillas” took black markers to signs they said were grammatically incorrect. The founder of a local communications consulting company derided the municipal decision to the national media and received so many emails – some “saluting” her position, others with multiple pages of vitriol – that she lost count. The weary city council, bombarded by questions and accusations from around the world, eventually retreated, saying in a statement that it just wanted to put the “great apostrophe debate to bed.”

Although punctuation is now safe in Cambridge, to many observers the brouhaha has bared a threat that looms greater than any single street sign: The English-speaking world is becoming laxer, and lazier about its language in a whirl of texts and 140-character tweets. Companies are dropping apostrophes to look “sleeker” on the web and students no longer know how to use a semi-colon.

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For Bernard Lamb, president of the Queen’s English Society, precision and accuracy are out the door, and no less than civilization is at stake. “If you can’t get your own language right, you are not going to get anything else right either…. If you say, ‘we’ll give way on this point, and on this point, and oh this is not really essential,’ it’s a slippery slope,” he says, that has us “going back to grunts.”

Cambridge’s reputation

The controversy in Cambridge ignited this winter, after a local beat reporter attending a town council meeting learned of a two-year-old policy on punctuation for signage. The policy was adopted to put the city in line with national guidelines and intended to minimize mistakes: Punctuation can be misread by some computers and some searches are faster without it, particularly important in the case of emergencies.

But those guidelines have since changed, says Tom Ward, of the Cambridge City Council, prompting their reversal in February. (GeoPlace, which maintains the British national address database, says it “prefers” not to have punctuation, but doesn’t “advise” against it.)

That was not before the firestorm erupted in Cambridge, however.

A debate that has largely been settled in the US – since its inception in 1890, the US Board on Geographic Names has in most cases removed apostrophes – in Britain, it’s a perennial one. When the English bookstore Waterstones decided to drop its apostrophe in 2012, it unleashed similar passions. Other local councils continue to uphold a ban on the apostrophe, and face the backlash.

But when the apostrophe war struck this quintessentially university town, it struck a particularly sensitive nerve.

“Cambridge is considered such an important seat of learning,” says Kathy Salaman, the director of the Good Grammar Company, on a recent quiet Sunday, walking through the pristine grounds of the university’s famed King’s College. Her firm offers advice on grammar to help clients better present their public communication. “I think we have a reputation to maintain.”

Ms. Salaman, a graduate herself of the University of Cambridge, found herself in the midst of the controversy after she opined on the decision. She says she is no purist, that language evolves and she accepts that. “But if students are taught it and are expected to use it, they should be seeing it in the public domain,” she says. It’s a double standard that she calls her “bugbear.”

The “Grammar Guerrillas” contacted her to support her position against the move (though they told her they’d prefer to be known as the “Covert Correctors”). Others accused her of putting punctuation ahead of people: a falsehood, she says, since emergency services can, in fact, cope with punctuation in their data systems.

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What became evident, however, is how much misinformation the apostrophe generates. Even the “guerrillas” were adding apostrophes in spots that didn’t necessarily call for them, which she respectfully pointed out. So she organized a workshop specifically on the much misused punctuation mark. She invited local businesspeople and others in the town – though her invitation to the city council, she says, went unanswered.

‘A society for the comma’?

Seventy-some miles north of Cambridge, 91-year-old John Richards, a retired journalist who spent two years on his newspaper’s editing desk, has been running a continuous workshop of sorts in Boston, England.  The misuse of the apostrophe, from its role in contractions to creating possessives – forget about singular possessives after a noun ending in “s” – was so vexing that he founded the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001.

Since then he has become the national spokesman of sorts for the apostrophe – when Waterstones dropped their apostrophe he did 18 live radio interviews.  

He’s never vandalized a street sign, but he has no qualms about calling up a store that has used an apostrophe incorrectly in a sign. “I’ve only had one person who said, ‘I can’t be bothered, why not get a life?’ he says. “It was a butcher. It’s rather ironic that I am a vegetarian.”

He’s been particularly irked by apostrophes missing on public streets. “They should be setting an example,” he says. “A commercial firm can call itself what it wants. A council should make much more effort to be accurate.”

While he’s been bolstered by the passions stirred in Cambridge, he laments a general decline in English language standards that spans well beyond the apostrophe, or what one man can bear alone. “Someone wrote to ask if I’d start a society for the comma,” he says. “I responded, ‘No I won’t. But if you start one, I will join.’”