Street names – Mid Devon fails Birmingham’s comma sense test

Chris Game

Mid Devon District Council has just had to reprint and re-issue tens of thousands of council tax demands, after sending the majority of its taxpayers bills for up to £5 more than they were due to pay.  A hapless council officer had miscalculated the parish precept part of the bills, thereby costing the council an estimated £12,000 in re-billing charges.

A pretty big deal, you might think – one that would surely top the agenda at this week’s cabinet meeting.  But you’d be wrong. Sure, folks are annoyed and the Council’s taken some flak, but the annoyance and flak over this expensive and embarrassing boo-boo are NOTHING compared with the literally global outcry prompted by the Council’s announcement that it was planning to formalise its street naming guidelines by, among other things, avoiding in new street names and signs “all punctuation, including apostrophes”.

Yes, I’m fully aware we’re approaching April 1st, but I promise you, this is serious stuff. The professionals, or obsessionals, set the pace. The Apostrophe Protection Society thought it “appalling, disgusting, pointless”. The Plain English Society was less hesitant, and in very plain English wondered, after the “murder” of the apostrophe, “where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?”

Then the locals leapt in – the obligatory quote from the Exeter University Eng lit lecturer; a tweet from Exeter MP and former Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, who, if encouraged, would tweet about his breakfast; and the local politician, with a beautifully crafted own goal. The Mayor of Tiverton Town Council, possibly still peeved by the fact that, when first invented in 1974, the meaningless ‘Mid Devon’ was in fact Tiverton District, thought “it’s ridiculous just to remove them” (they weren’t; the proposal was for new street names only). “If for example Blundell’s Road belongs to Blundell then it should have an apostrophe.”

Precisely. And, if it no longer does, then presumably it shouldn’t. Blundell’s Road and Avenue in Tiverton are two of only about four currently apostrophised street names in the whole Mid Devon district. They are named after the extremely rich 16th Century merchant, Peter Blundell, but probably never actually belonged to him, and certainly don’t today. Game and set, one would think, to the Mid Devon reformers, but sadly, as we shall see, not the match.

By now, any Birmingham readers will have recalled that we went through all this sound and fury back in 2009, when the City Council similarly decided to formalise what had become conventional practice and remove all apostrophes from those place and street names that still, sometimes and arbitrarily, retained them. The author of the policy was a Lib Dem councillor for Moseley and Kings Heath ward and Chair of the Transportation Scrutiny Committee, Martin Mullaney.

Mullaney’s initial concern was to get a ruling on Kings Heath and Kings Norton, which wasn’t easy. The Gazetteer of British Place Names, for example, refuses even to recognise any such place name without a possessive apostrophe, if there’s any chance at all that it might once have warranted one. So Acock’s Green (another Birmingham ward) remains apparently the possession of one member of the Acock family, Druid’s Heath (in the same South Birmingham area) the playground of a single druid, and King’s Heath and King’s Norton are treated as if they were still part of the property portfolio of a monarch who flogged them off more than two centuries ago.

To any right-thinking person this is barmy, and thankfully the City Council had long recognised it as such.  Some decades previously, it had followed the lead of the Americans (of course) and several other English-speaking countries and dropped the possessive apostrophe completely from Birmingham place names – though more in the interests of convenience and economy than of improving historical or grammatical logic.

And to me, convenience or what one might call comma sense, are the key points in this particular debate. On the whole, I’m pretty keen on using punctuation properly and observing its rules. I don’t want, as the Plain English Campaign puts it, to “murder” the apostrophe, or any other punctuation mark. I’ve no wish to be rid of it altogether, even though it’s often more trouble than it’s worth (despite the potential confusion between it’s and its, you’d still understand this sentence, even if I’d left out all six apostrophes), and in the real world is on its way out anyway. It’s the possessive pronoun in names and signs, not its ‘omission’ purpose of signalling missing letters, that I’d do away with.

We know from linguistic historians that the apostrophe’s use to signify possession, as opposed to indicating letters omitted, is a punctuation oddball – a latecomer, essentially in the 19th Century, owing more to printers than grammarians, with rules that are never clear cut and frequently unknowable. Why, to pick just one example, no apostrophe with possessive pronouns – hers, his, yours, ours, its – but with the possessive of some indefinite pronouns – one’s, anyone’s, somebody’s?

When it comes to names, if, in order to use the apostrophe correctly, you need to research the life history of the person or place (as with Tiverton’s Peter Blundell), or know the chosen corporate preference of the company, then you’re better off without it. I think it was Queens College that decided me. As an academic, I happen to know that it’s The Queen’s College, Oxford and Queens’ College, Cambridge. And the reason – come on, pay attention there! – is that the former was founded in honour of one Queen (Philippa of Hainault – the then French one, not the East London one), while the latter commemorates the two Queens of Henry VI and Edward IV. Yes, I’m not certain even Michael Caine knows that.

Companies, sports stadia and the like are even trickier. If you’re pro-apostrophe, you’ve got Sainsbury’s with you and Morrisons against you; Blackwell’s with you, Foyles and, since last year, Waterstones against; McDonald’s for, Harrods, Selfridges and Starbucks against; Lord’s (cricket ground) for, Ladbrokes against; St Andrew’s (Birmingham City) and St James’ Park (Newcastle) for, St James Park (Exeter) against.

Which brings us back to Birmingham.  In 2009 the Council attracted just the same OTT outrage and ridicule as Mid Devon has. Councillor Mullaney got himself on New Zealand television, and similarly Mid Devon has been reported and mocked by the Belfast Telegraph, the Canberra Times and Newstrack India. The big difference has been that, whereas Councillor Mullaney and Birmingham City Council stood their ground, went ahead and abolished, their Mid Devon counterparts have rather pathetically caved in.

The Council’s Conservative Leader, hyphenated Peter Hare-Scott, having reviewed the situation, decided against taking on the out-of-town punctuation fascists, and, when Agenda Item 4(c): Street Naming and Numbering comes up, will recommend that the Cabinet “amend the policy so that street names may in future have apostrophes”. Eric Pickles for one will be pleased. A spokesman from the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Whilst this is ultimately a matter for the local council, ministers’ view is that England’s apostrophes should be cherished.”  Their view of Conservative-led councils who cost their hard-working taxpayers money by miscalculating their council tax demands isn’t recorded

Note: A version of this blog post appeared previously on TheChamberlainFiles.com

game

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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