English town council wants to abolish apostrophes in street-names to end "confusion"

The Conservative council in Mid-Devon, England has mooted a proposal to remove apostrophes from street signs, claiming they cause "potential confusion." I live on a street in East London with an on-again/off-again apostrophe whose presence depends on which database you're using. But given that all serious UK navigation and geocoding is done by postcode, this just seems like a bit of silliness.

The council communications manager Andrew Lacey 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.

"Although there is no national guidance that stops apostrophes being used, for many years the convention we have followed here is for new street names not to be given apostrophes.

"In fact, there are currently only three official street names in Mid Devon which include them: Beck's Square and Blundell's Avenue, both in Tiverton, and St George's Well in Cullompton – all named many, many years ago. No final decision has yet been made and the proposed policy will be discussed at cabinet."

The science fiction legend Damon Knight used to semi-seriously advocate for the abolition of the apostrophe altogether. I remember thinking he had a point at the time.

Council considers ban on apostrophes in street signs [Press Association]


  1. Just imagine if someone tried to pull that crap in Hawai’i. Most of the street names there are forty percent apostrophe.

    1. In Hawai’ian the apostrophe represents the glottal stop, a distinct phoneme. In English, French, Italian, etc. the apostrophe represents the absence of something which often no longer actually exists creating double the confusion.

      1. Examples for English..?  As far as I can recall, most of the time the apostrophe is in place of something that otherwise *is* there, as in can’t, he’s, she’ll…

        1. Not in the possessive or genitive where it replaces the -e- from the Old English genitive affix -es but not the -a- of the Old English plural -as. Both these affixes have fallen together in Modern English as simply -s. This is the use of the apostrophe which causes all the confusion. It does seem to be getting worse. The apostrophe now randomly migrates between plurals, genitives and third person singular present tense verb forms with no sense of what it might actually mean or how it functions.

          1.  Rational people would have gotten rid of the possessive apostrophes long ago, since, as you say, they don’t stand for anything.  However, they would then have to give up being peeved at people who use, or don’t use, apostrophes when they shouldn’t / should.  So it will never happen; the satisfaction of being peeved is too great.

  2. Nope.  No, I won’t get hauled into another discussion like this before the end of the month.  I just wasted much of last Thursday arguing about the non-literal usage of “literally.”

    All I’m gonna say here is “Bad Damon Knight!  Bad!”

          1. Disemvoweling is no dishonor, sir. Any fool could have read my words as

            “Could you read a novel like that? I don’t think that it would be that enjoyable.

    1. The use of possessives is an outlier.  Beck’s Square should be Beck Square, anyway.  You don’t meet someone at the corner of Washington’s Street and Grant’s Boulevard.

      1. If one time Beck actually owned it or was in residence there, “Beck’s Square” seems perfectly OK.

        Unless you also think that the structure in Riverside Drive Park should be called “Grant Tomb”.

  3. Thank god there’s nothing else going on in the world that these councillors could potentially use their position of authority to try and address..

    1.  On the contrary, the more time they spend in addressing issues of absolutely zero impact, the happier most of the population certainly must be.

  4. Previously, on Tiverton Today, Councillor Cameron had a quiet beer with Simon Signmaker.  Now Cameron is heading into a council meeting full of beer and bluster.  What will he do next?

    Oooh I do love a good tele show, don’t you Mavis?  Fetch us a cup of tea, there’s a dear.

      1. Smiling innocently as she recalls her illicit encounter the previous night with Simon Signmaker’s wife, who herself only recently aided and abetted the murder of Councillor Cameron’s nephew.

        Aunt Helga fretted about the state of the Post Office’s finances.  Mavis suggested she simply raid the depositors’ accounts for 10%, rather than having an embarrassing financial failure to deal with.

  5. I live on an apostrophal street in Southern California and when I order online, the card verification won’t accept the street with the apostrophe in it. So this has already happened in the States.

    1. I live in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Or Lees Summit, depending on who you believe. I run into this problem a lot.

      1. But it’s not really a *problem*. Apart from the linguistic interest (after General Lee, Lee Marvin or the lee-side of the mountain?) no human is going to get it wrong and for systems even a coding virgin can strip punctuation from input.

        I actually live in the area described.  It really is just a bit of committee control freakery.  The reaction is as amusing as the proposal.

  6. They think that’s bad, come to Houston. Almost all the streets are deflected 30 degrees as they pass west of main street so they are at right angles to the grid in Montrose and 4th Ward. And all but Gray/West Gray change names. And no, West Dallas street does not count as there actually two West Dallas streets and the one that actually goes anywhere turns into Bagby. There are also streets with three names. Its even worse in the ‘burbs. Back in the 60’s they decided to preempt future streets with three names by drawing lines on a map and saying that if you developed land in the suburbs, you had to build a 4 lane boulevard if your land abuted these lines. So you have Boulevards to Nowhere with the same name as a country road three miles away.

    1. I like weirdness like that.  I find endless charm in places like London, where the same stretch of asphalt might change names five times in two miles.

      The creepy alternative is Salt Lake City (and other cities in Utah) which rely on a sensible north-south & east-west grid, numbered outward from the Temple at the center.  The big street two city blocks south of the Temple is 200 South.  Go down to that street and turn left.  After three city blocks you’ll hit 300 East.  A building on that corner will have an address like 301 East 200 South, Salt Lake City, UT.  And that address serves admirably as map coordinates.

      But as level-headed and practical as it is, I think it loses something when the street names are so cold and unevocative.  The non-numbered street names in SLC are still relentlessly practical and location-minded.  West Temple serves as the western boundary to the Temple.  State Street leads straight up the hill to the Utah State Capitol building.  University Blvd imaginatively abuts the University of Utah.  And then there’s the ever-so-original Main Street.  Heck, there’s even a Broadway, though I don’t believe it’s appreciably wider than any of Salt Lake’s unusually broad main drags (Brigham Young wanted wagon teams to be able to turn around easily enough that their drivers wouldn’t “resort to profanity.”)  I think streets in Camazotz would resemble those in SLC.

      I’ve come to like goofy streets like Lankershim Blvd, which chops diagonally through North Hollywood, CA for no good reason I can see.  There’s a midcentury housing development east of San Diego wherein all the streets are named after lakes which begin with the letter A.  And I used to ride a school bus through another housing development whose developers showed an incredible paucity of naming imagination: there’s a Jennings Vista Drive, Jennings Vista Way, Jennings Vista Trail, Jennings Vista Court, and Jennings Vista Circle.  And not one of those streets has any kind of view over neighboring Lake Jennings.

      1. Salt Lake streets seem rational at first blush (especially if you’re still in a stones-throw of a skyscraper) but then you head out or down and they lead to suburban ‘sheep trails’ as my dad says. Excepting for geography there are some really damn confusing roads like Highland dr (hell just look around 40.699772,-111.850691), Van Winkle which somehow goes from 7th east to Highland in more the 20th east area, Ft Union, the entire system change for the avenues which deeply confused my brother-in-law, New vs Old Bingham highway (west side represent), and the one I hate absolutely most of all: Vine street. Oh I hate vine street will a passion. If someone told me the secret to life was on vine street I would tie them down and waterboard them not to make them give up the specific location, but to punish them for suggesting to go to that horrible place.

        PS calling 3rd south broadway would do nothing but confuse a local, same with calling 6th MLK jr.

        1. When I was in high school (or thereabouts), San Diego tried renaming Market Street after Dr King.  Man, you should have heard the squawk.  One might have thought Market Street had been Market Street forever (when I think it started out as H Street, situated as it is between G Street and Island Avenue, followed by J Street).  Eventually, they decided to name Highway 94 after Dr King himself, since it didn’t have such a nostalgically valuable name.

          But one can’t be sure; San Diego seems to value its numbers more than its names when it comes to highways.  Angelenos will refer to the Golden State Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the Ventura Freeway, and the San Diego Freeway (even the Arroyo Seco Speedway, ha ha) to each other and everyone will know what they’re talking about.  But I don’t think the San Diegan has yet lived who speaks of traveling the Jacob Dekema Freeway down to the Kumeyaay Highway, or tries to avoid the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Freeway when heading downtown.

      2. goofy streets like Lankershim Blvd, which chops diagonally through North Hollywood, CA for no good reason I can see.

        Lankershim roughly follows the path of the old road up from the pueblo of Los Angeles to the mission at San Fernando, along the western bank of the (middle branch of) the Tujunga Wash (in which the North Hollywood freeway was built after Hansen Dam diverted its water elsewhere and reduced it to a moderate-sized stormwater channel alongside the freeway).

        Notice how Lankershim and the freeway run roughly parallel?

        Isaac Lankershim, president of the Los Angeles Farm & Milling Co., ran the southern half of the San Fernando Valley as a vast wheat farm served by five separate ranches. 

        His son J.B. bought  a portion of the LAF&MCo land surrounding the Tujunga Wash and sudivided it into 10, 20 and 40 acre orchard parcels during LA’s first great land boom in the late 1880s.

        J.B’s  development, the Lankershim Ranch Land & Water Co.,  was the source of the present-day street grid, with Lankershim Blvd, (then called “San Fernando Ave.”) running on a 2:1 diagonal through it, parallel to (but slightly offset from) the old road to the mission.

        An historic map from the development’s 1887 sales brochure can be seen  at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lankershim_Ranch_Land_and_Water_Company_1887.png.

      3. In London there is no rule that says a building actually has to be in the same street as its correct postal address. No 35 X street could well be found somewhere in Y street. And in many other old world towns I would imagine.

    2. Las Vegas has the same kind of problem, but the system seems more half-witted. There’s three Tonopahs that have nothing to do with each other.

      1. Isn’t every street in the state of Georgia named Peach Tree Street, Road, Lane, Alley, etc.?

        Boston has Centre Street, Court, Place, etc. because the city is made up of other cities that have been ingested over the last few centuries.

  7. Where would HP Lovecraft be without liberal use of apostrophes?

    Also, the K’shetriae of T’rain.

  8. They’d love Cambridge – “Bene’t Street” and “Queens’ Road” amongst other joys. Devon also contains the town “Westward Ho!” which makes apostrophes seem normal

  9. Many English villages have a “Vicar’s Green”.  I wouldn’t have grown up snorting at my dad’s jokes about how “the vicar’s green” if that apostrophe had been stolen.

  10. I swear I’ve been reading Boing Boing for years and I’ve thought Cory Doctorow lives in Canada, the US and now this article says he lives in the UK. Which is it? I think the formatting of your posts lends to this confusion as I often also think before I click you’re writing what you’re actually just quoting.

    1. Born and raised in Canada, lived in the US for a while, living in London with his wife and daughter for quite a few years now.

          1. Or on Canada Avenue at Montana Street, in Pasadena.  ‘Cause then we’d be neighbors.

            And he’d be living in a school bus.

  11. Becks Square and Blundells Avenue make sense without the apostrophe.

    But St. Georges Well makes it sound like there’s more than one St. George, and that the well is named for all of them.

  12. The BBC has done other articles on this, and I recall one saying there’s an unwritten rule that a street name drops the apostrophe when it’s so old that no-one can remember whom the person was and why the street “belonged” to them. It just sort of happens. 

    St James’s Street moves from being possessive and becomes, I guess you call, an adjectival St James Street.

  13. They’re not going to remove apostrophes for existing street signs, they’re just proposing to avoid giving apostrophised names to streets in the future.

  14. “But given that all serious UK navigation and geocoding is done by postcode, this just seems like a bit of silliness.”

    Are you sure about this? Maybe it’s true for London, but I remember building a postcode lookup app for UK addresses a few years ago and being surprised at how coarse the resolution of the postcode grid is in some places. Some addresses were completely impossible to look up. There were also postal codes that covered multiple villages, making them unusable as both an address lookup tool and, I would imagine, an aid for navigation.

    Coming from the Netherlands, were every individual tree and shrubbery seems to have its own postal code, this surprised me greatly (and taught me a great deal about not making assumptions about infrastructure in different countries).

    1. Yes, Cory is sure about that, but he’s still wrong :P

      I live in the middle of nowhere, UK and post codes are fairly useless for navigation outside of villages and towns as they can cover areas of several square kilometres. That being said, they’re not likely to cover a large number of roads (and certainly not many named roads), so the chances of encountering two apostrophically confusable road names within one complete post code area are indeed remote.

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