Verbal Energy

Uncle Sam's war on apostrophes

Federal mapmakers have been excising these little marks since 1890, and the Monitor's language columnist wonders why.

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It's high summer, that season of hitting the open road. If you still have an actual printed road atlas in your car, you may take a few minutes before you leave to glance over the map of your route and imagine the adventures that lie ahead of you.

And there you may spot signs of Uncle Sam's war against apostrophes.

Saxtons River, Vt., for instance, is so charming that the whole village has been put onto the National Register of Historic Places. It takes its name from the river that runs through it – a river named, according to local lore, for a surveyor who may or may not have fallen into it.

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Whether he fell in or not, the Board on Geographic Names (BGN), part of the United States Geological Survey, officially recognizes no apostrophe in the name of either the river or the village.

Here's what the board's website has to say about apostrophes: "Since its inception in 1890, the US Board on Geographic Names has discouraged the use of the possessive form – the genitive apostrophe and the 's.' The possessive form using an 's' is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed. The Board's archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy."

This is the great thing about the Web: You can hit a bureaucratic stonewall in just seconds, instead of standing in line for hours before finding out that the rules are the rules, even if there's no explanation for them.

But actually, the board does go into a little more detail farther down the same page: "The probable explanation is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features because, 'ownership of a feature is not in and of itself a reason to name a feature or change its name.' "

The source of the part within single quotes is not clear; oral tradition within the BGN, perhaps? But the English language and usage website that is part of the Stack Exchange Network of Q-and-A websites cites this from the BGN's editorial guidelines:

"Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper geographic name (Henrys Fork: not Henry's Fork). The word or words that form a geographic name change their connotative function and together form a single denotative unit. They change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists."

Well, that sounds awfully Zen to me. If the need to imply possession or association no longer exists, haven't we rewound the history of human civilization back at least to the days of, oh, let's say, nomadic tribes wandering in Mesopotamia, or even further back? Solitary cave dwellers, maybe?

Leaving aside, though, whether the no-apostrophes rule reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, I'm going to argue that the possessive apostrophe is a punctuation mark that still has a fair bit of life left in it. Modern English doesn't have much in the way of inflections, such as the case endings of Latin or Russian. But we do use the apostrophe "s" to indicate possession: Sally's car, Joe and Mary's house, etc. My counterproposal to the BGN would be to say, OK, leave out the apostrophe, but make it legit by dropping the "s." Thus, it could just be the Henry Fork River in Idaho, or the Saxton River in Vermont.

That would keep us sticklers from wanting to add apostrophes of our own.

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