In the lanes of Devon, the signs aren't looking good for the apostrophe

Council plans to ban ‘confusing’ punctuation mark from new street names

There’s something about this sentence that Mid Devon District Council doesn’t like. Two things in fact. Apostrophes.

The local authority has outraged guardians of the English language by proposing to ban the punctuation mark from new street names – as one of a number of measures aimed at “reducing potential confusion”.

Quite what is confusing about an apostrophe was not obvious to residents yesterday, although the council has suggested that, when searching internet databases and co-ordinating responses to emergencies, “it’s useful to have everyone spelling things in the same way”.

But punctuation pedants are far from convinced.

“What are they doing?!” demanded Steve Jenner, of the Plain English Campaign.

“Language is an agreed set of rules and if we stop agreeing that’s the case it’s going to cause real problems. It could actually be dangerous. It could cause situations where people are misunderstood. Where does this stop? Do we get rid of commas and full stops because they’re inconvenient?”

John Richards, chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, pointed out that regardless of the practical application of the apostrophe, Mid Devon Council had a responsibility to uphold grammatical standards.

“There are plenty of schools in Mid Devon where teachers are trying to teach people the English language,” he said. “Those pupils are now quite within their rights to say ‘Who bothers about apostrophes? The council doesn’t.’”

Opinions among residents of Bakers View in Newton Abbot – apparently a street that has fallen victim to the council’s deep-rooted anti-apostrophe tendencies – ranged from outrage to stoic acquiescence.

“I never thought about it and it doesn’t worry me at all,” one of them told the BBC. But Mr Jenner, a local, disagrees. “Bakers View should be Baker’s,” he said. “In 100 years’ time when historians come to investigate why it’s called Bakers View they’ll be looking for somewhere where 30 guys were making bread.”

Explaining the rationale behind the plans, a council spokesman said: “Our proposed policy on street naming and numbering covers a whole host of practical issues, many of which are aimed at reducing potential confusion over street names.”

Among the “host of practical issues” are other measures aimed at regulating the naming of new streets including one that stipulates that “street names that may be open to re-interpretation by graffiti or shortening of the name shall be avoided.”

So no Cockburn Roads or anything like that.

The council insists, however, that no road signs will be changed and the three street names in the area which do have apostrophes – Beck’s Square and Blundell’s Avenue in Tiverton and St George’s Well in Cullompton – will keep their punctuation marks.

The council added that shunning apostrophes had been de facto policy for years and was only now being made official – with the matter going before cabinet on 28 March. Councils in Birmingham and Wakefield have previously proposed similar bans.

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