Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The use of possessive apostrophes in place names in Birmingham on road signs

 Birmingham City Council now has an emerging city wide view on the inclusion or dropping of the possessive apostrophe in place names across the city. This affects thousands of street names and district names like Kings Heath, Kings Norton and Acocks Green.

 Can I first of all thank all the residents who responded to my e-mail at the start of January asking for opinions on whether or not Kings Heath, should be spelt King's Heath or Kings Heath.

 Some of the responses directed me to various websites which discussed the use of possessive apostrophes in place names.

 As a result, I asked the Highways Department to comment on this issue. The department has consulted the "Gazetteer of British Place Names" and contacted two primary organisations concerned with the use of plain language in England: The Plain English Society and Plain Language Commission. From my perspective, I have done my own research into the use of the possessive apostrophe in place names.

 As a result, the consensus of the City Council on the future use of possessive apostrophes in place names is that they should not be re‑introduced. This view will, I know, upset a lot of residents, but if you bear with me, I'll explain the logic behind the view.

 Since all place names in Birmingham had their possessive apostrophe dropped in the 1950s, places like Kings Heath, Acocks Green, Druids Heath, Kings Norton, etc, will remain as such.

The reasoning and historical context is as follows:

The reasons for proposing not to re-introduce the possessive apostrophe are:

1)     Consistency and avoiding confusion

2)     Cost of reintroducing the possessive apostrophe

3)  There is confusion as to whether the possessive apostrophe should be included in place names

1) Consistency and avoiding confusion

 Many English language countries have made a national decision to drop the possessive apostrophe. The USA dropped theirs in 1890 and Australia in 2001. Britain has never made such a decision, although it appears from Ordnance Survey maps that the possessive apostrophe has almost completely disappeared since the 1950s. Indeed, if you look at old cast iron street name plates in Birmingham, you will see the possessive apostrophe has been painted out. Good examples exist at St. Marys Row (Moseley) and Wheelers Lane (Kings Heath).

 Australia's reasoning for dropping the possessive apostrophe is very relevant, since they argued that with the emergency services using computer databases there was a need for nationwide consistency. It would be tragic if the ambulance couldn't find your street, if you forgot to include the possessive apostrophe when calling 999.

 The "Gazetteer of British Place Names" shows that few place names in Britain have the possessive apostrophe. 

Both the Plain English Society and the Plain Language Commission have said that there is no rule in Britain with regards to possessive apostrophes in place names. They further add that if the name presently does not have the apostrophe, then leave it that way.


2) Cost of re-introducing the possessive apostrophe

 The cost of re-introducing the possessive apostrophe across Birmingham would be enormous. There are probably thousands of roads that once had the apostrophe and would now argue for its re-introduction. Changing all the road name plates and highway direction sign would be astronomical.


3) There is confusion as to whether the possessive apostrophe should be included in place names

Kings Heath, along with Kings Norton, was at the time of the Doomsday book part of the district of Bromsgrove. Bromsgrove at that time was owned by the monarchy.
By 1564, the monarchy sold Bromsgrove, but retained ownership of parts of the district - namely Kings Norton and Kings Heath. Kings Norton remained in the ownership of the monarchy until 1803. I don't have a date for when the monarchy sold off Kings Heath, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 1803.

 Prior to 1803, it can be argued that it was grammatically correct to include the possessive apostrophe in the Kings Heath and Kings Norton name, since the monarchy owned the places.

 Since the monarchy no longer own either Kings Heath or Kings Norton it is argued that it is no longer grammatically correct to include the possessive apostrophe.

 There is no national guidance on whether place names should have the possessive apostrophe or not.




At 12:28 PM, Blogger Dr Gary Blonions said...

Perhaps you could change "Acocks Green" to "Acox Green"? That would save two letters, thereby saving the council millions. It is, after all, only a label.

At 6:09 PM, Blogger P said...

This ambulance thing has to be the lamest excuse ever found by Man.
Other than that, if the name is King's Heath, that's what the name is, and removing the apostrophe is actually changing the name. Who currently owns said heath is completely irrelevant to the grammatical discussion. Not that I am opposed to the name change, it happens all the time. Just don't use preposterous excuses.

At 8:33 AM, Blogger fatboyfat said...

Because it's so much easier than actually teaching people about apostrophes, isn't it?

At 1:00 AM, Blogger Schnitger said...

Take the next logical step - do away with the entire use of possessives. No more mine or yours. No more his, hers, or theirs. Then do away with capital letters thereby simplifying the letter set for sighns to a mere 26 letters and 9 numerals ("O" could be used in place of "0")

now by having eliminated apostrophes and capital letters you could eliminate all punctuation and then eliminate tenses and cases and revert to an aboriginal communications that abandons 2500 years of progress you are sooooo smart and sooooo frugal there is also no need for having multiple spellings for words that sound the same, i e be and bee or cat and qat or lane and lain

i can hardly wait to visit manchester and see the chaos

Now a better thought - learn the Queen's English. A remedial course in grammar and syntax will benefit you in future and save taxpayers considerable money and confusion. I suggest you begin with a primary reader. Your ability to communicate in standard English will enhance your life and career.

At 11:12 PM, Blogger macsco said...

(from my personal e-mail to M M) Yet again Birmingham is being ridiculed in the National media. Well done!

At 2:42 AM, Blogger Paul Michael Murphy said...

You're right. Apostrophes are confusing. Can we get rid of fractions too?

At 3:40 AM, Blogger Monica said...

So, we bow to those who are not smart enough to know when to use an apostrophe? I thought that intelligence would win out. Turns out we're only as strong as our stupidest members. Perhaps we should abandon any semblance of proper spelling at all.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Mrs.Nett said...

Please expect a package of letters from my third and fourth grade class. They have very strong opinions about the proper use of punctuation. I am sure the teachers and students of community could instruct you on the proper use of apostrophes also. Yes, as another blogger indicated, you have media worldwide rediculing your decision.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Fruitbat said...

I wish all I had to do with my time was to think about what to do about apostrophes. You get paid what for this?

What a ludicrous idea! I put a great deal of time and effort learning about punctuation and now you want to make all my studying a total waste of time.

It won’t be long before we’ll all be speaking chav speak - dis and dat and fing!

Or should I say . . . IwishallIhadtodowithmytimewastothinkaboutwhattodoaboutapostrophesYougetpaidwhatforthisWhataludicrousideaIputagreatdealoftimeandeffortlearningaboutpunctuationandnowyouwanttomakeallmystudying atotalwasteoftimeItwontbelongbeforewellallbespeakingchavspeakdisanddatandfing

Because how long before we lose ALL punctuation i.e. spaces and full stops?

At 8:59 PM, Blogger jdk653 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9:07 PM, Blogger jdk653 said...

As the rest of the country gets by on a case-by-case basis makes one wonder why Birmingham can't do the same.

The fact that King's Heath is no longer owned by the monarchy is utterly irrelevant. It's no longer a heath either, in case anybody hadn't noticed. Place-names are frequently the oldest extant form of evidence about a place, and deserve preserving for this reason alone.

The apostrophe, it must be admitted, is a bonus. Correct in modern English usage, but spelling and punctuation shift over time despite the best efforts of authorities to fix them in place.


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