How Possessive: The Apostrophe's Place In Space

Martha Brockenbrough, the founder of National Grammar Day and the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, tells host Rachel Martin about what she has referred to as an "apostrophe catastrophe." The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has a policy against possessive apostrophes in the names of places. The reason, The Wall Street Journal reports, is that the apostrophe quote implies private ownership of a public space.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm sure if I asked him, Will Shortz would probably acknowledge that the same people who really love words and word play also have a special affinity for punctuation. I would put myself in this camp. I have a lot of respect for a well-placed semicolon. But it's really the ellipsis that captures my punctuation imagination. To be honest, I've never much cared for the apostrophe. Maybe it's just too utilitarian.

Well, turns out I'm not the only one. The group responsible for geographic signs around the country has gone so far as to just drop the poor apostrophe altogether. The Wall Street Journal pointed this out in a piece last week. And if you think about it it's true. Signs for places like Pikes Peak or Harpers Ferry. Grammatically speaking, there should be an apostrophe before the S, but there is not on these signs.

The reason, according to the Journal, is that the apostrophe, quote, "implies private ownership of a public space." But this has a lot of people riled up, especially grammarians.

MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH: When it comes to the history of how things are named, when you take out the apostrophe, you strip away a bit of its history.

MARTIN: Martha Brockenbrough is the founder of National Grammar Day and the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. And when we first contacted her about this, she called it an apostrophe catastrophe.

BROCKENBROUGH: OK, so it's fun to say apostrophe catastrophe. That's probably hyperbole. However, when people dismiss apostrophes as meaningless or unimportant, it's a huge mistake. They're really not meaningless. They're really not unimportant.

MARTIN: So for Brockenbrough, the apostrophe as tiny as it may be is no small matter. She says there's no need to wait until National Grammar Day to drum up support.

BROCKENBROUGH: Definitely, when it comes to the apostrophe we're not going to wait for March 4th to rally to the defense of the Rodney Dangerfield of punctuation. We're going to demand a little respect for the apostrophe right here, right now. And that moment of silence was my little demand.

Actually, Frank Zappa has a song called "Apostrophe," and it's a wordless song, which is totally appropriate for a quiet and unassuming bit of punctuation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "APOSTROPHE")

FRANK ZAPPA: (Playing)

MARTIN: That's Martha Brockenbrough of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.

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