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Possession is not nine-tenths of it

Our own, our very own Rob Hiaasen has written about residents of Fells Point, the neighborhood that Sun style spells without an apostrophe, who are committed to restoring the punctuation to the name. Usage, historically and currently, has varied, and the newspaper’s stylebook makes the kind of arbitrary choice that stylebooks must make when there are options.

Well, not entirely arbitrary. There is a tendency in English for words to run together and to lose punctuation. Everybody, for example, was written as every body in Jane Austen’s time, and the hyphens in to-day and to-morrow lingered into the 20th century. Apostrophes in place names are particularly likely to drop out — thus the Baltimore County neighborhoods of Turners Station and Bowleys Quarters.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is historically hostile to the apostrophe, permitting it in a handful of place names officially recognized, such as Martha’s Vineyard. Perhaps the board members summer there.

We do keep the apostrophe for Prince George’s County and Queen Anne’s County, which we think are the dominant forms. We omit the apostrophe from Presidents Day but keep it for Defenders’ Day.* We follow British practice with the Court of St. James’s and Earls Court in London. Businesses — Harrods, Starbucks, Marshalls — often shed the apostrophe, though some — Macy’s — retain it.

What this should tell you is that there is no settled naming convention with the apostrophe. Like so much else in English, names are determinedly idiosyncratic, resistant to rules and logic alike.

In case you were wondering, Fells Point stands in The Sun’s stylebook.

 

*Defenders’ Day in Baltimore commemorates the failure of the British army and navy to take the city in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. General Ross, the British commander, vowed to dine in Baltimore or in hell. He did not dine in Baltimore, and the Royal Navy never got past Fort McHenry.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:00 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

Though it's obviously not American English, I am always amused by the fact that the bay in New Zealand is Hawke Bay while the surrounding wine region is Hawke's Bay.

Eagle's Landing Golf Course
on Eagles Nest Road

I always wondered ... the Court of St. James's what? It's technically the Court of St. James's Palace.

... not the infirmary.


More evidence for my pet (but entirely blue-sky) theory that we should just eliminate the apostrophe for the possessive altogether. Ordinary mortals* can't remember the guidelines for plural possessives or possessives for nouns that end in -s; the familiar rule that an apostrophe marks an elision does not obtain for possessives anyway; there is some small hope that if possessive apostrophes were to be relegated to the boneyard, greengrocers' apostrophes might follow.

A real benefit is that it would leave us more time to fleer and scorn at other comical misuses of those to whom we wish to feel superior! :-)

* I of course exclude from this group all copy editors.

Ooh, excellent word, fleer.

John says:

"*Defenders’ Day in Baltimore commemorates the failure of the British army and navy to take the city in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. General Ross, the British commander, vowed to dine in Baltimore or in hell. He did not dine in Baltimore, and the Royal Navy never got past Fort McHenry."

Hmmmm. Maybe:

"He did not dine in Baltimore, nor did the Royal Navy pass Fort McHenry."

The Royal Navy didn't get past Fairlee just a few weeks earlier at the Battle of Caulk's Field in Kent County. No British army involved.

Gen'l Ross would have been the British army commander. The Royal Navy had another commander. Either Cochrane or Cockburn, darned if I remember.

Quite right. I was careless. Maj. Gen. Robert Ross was in command of the British infantry, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane in command of the fleet.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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