Birmingham City Council has been getting a lot of stick lately for its decision not to use apostrophes on street signs.
As a writer part of me does worry about this. It’s yet another erosion of the traditions of our language and grammar, and yet another blow to the trusty old apostrophe, the use of which baffles many people already.
But just how important is this? Fair enough, something like St Paul’s Square really should have an apostrophe because it’s called after St Paul’s Church, which is called after… St Paul. The apostrophe is there to show possession. Place names, on the other hand, tend to be less clear-cut. Kings Heath perhaps ought to have an apostrophe because it refers to the heath owned by the king (singular). But how about Druids Heath? Is that singular or plural? Where should the apostrophe go? It might well be better in that case to leave it out than get it wrong. And as for Acocks Green, is this even named for someone called Acock or does it come from a different source altogether?
As the article I link to above says, many of the apostrophes were already dying out in the 1950s so this is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, I have an old map of the area which shows Kings Heath spelled without the apostrophe as far back as 1880 – and many other such names around the country have either lost their apostrophes or never had them in the first place: Kings Pyon, Bishops Itchington (yes, really!), Canons Ashby.
So perhaps Birmingham council deserves a bit of slack. After all, I’d much rather see a road sign spelled Kings Heath than the sign I saw in a computer superstore this lunchtime, which read “IPOD’s”. That really did annoy me!