The Grammarphobia Blog

The geography of the apostrophe

Q: I thought you might find it interesting that city officials in Cambridge (England) have banned the use of the apostrophe in new street names. What are your thoughts?

A: We saw the same news stories you did. But a few days after you emailed us, there was a new development. The officials in Cambridge bowed to public pressure and reversed that ban on possessive apostrophes in signs marking new streets.

Here in the United States, we don’t see many possessive apostrophes (or periods, for that matter) in street signs. The authorities that regulate these things tend to discourage the use of punctuation. 

(And by the way, you might be interested in a post we wrote some time ago on the use of compass directions—like the confusing “No” for north—on street signs.)

Who gets to decide whether street signs can have apostrophes? In the US, as in Britain, this is up to local cities and towns.

In this country, the individual municipalities use guidelines established by state boards or commissions that regulate geographic names. All 50 states have such agencies.

The states in turn look to the federal government for guidance. And on the federal level, the use of apostrophes in the names of geographic features has been discouraged since 1890, when the US Board on Geographic Names was established.

This is why you almost never see apostrophes on federal signs and maps. The US board says in the FAQ on its website that when place names are in the possessive form, “the apostrophe is almost always removed,” though the “s” by itself is allowed.

What does the federal government have against apostrophes in geographic features? The agency itself can’t explain. “The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy,” it says in the FAQ.

But it does dispose of a few old theories: “Myths attempting to explain the policy include the idea that the apostrophe looks too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, and is therefore a hazard, or that in the days of ‘stick–up type’ for maps, the apostrophe would become lost and create confusion.”

“The probable explanation,” the agency suggests, “is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features.”

Elsewhere, in its editorial guidelines, the board says: “Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper name (Henrys Fork, not Henry’s Fork).”

However, the guidelines add, “Apostrophes may be used within the body of a geographic name to denote a missing letter (Lake O’ the Woods) or when they normally exist in a surname used as part of a geographic name (O’Malley Hollow).”

As for street signs, the national board says that, unless asked for an opinion, it doesn’t get involved in the names of roads, streets, highways, canals, shopping centers, churches, schools, hospitals, airports, and other entities that are administered by local governments. 

So local agencies or municipalities are free to choose whether the names include a genitive or possessive apostrophe. But as we said above, the local agencies generally follow guidelines from their states, which tend to follow the federal government’s lead.

For example, the Hawaii State Board on Geographic Names lists apostrophes among “things to avoid.”

Many American place names that once had apostrophes officially lost them to government regulation back in the 19th century—notably Pikes Peak, named for the explorer Zebulon Pike, and Harpers Ferry, for a ferry operator named Robert Harper.

And for the most past, Americans haven’t been as bothered by all this as their counterparts in Britain. But even here, defenders of the apostrophe have occasionally (very occasionally) made themselves heard on the subject.

As a result, a handful of what the board calls “natural features” have been allowed to include an apostrophe denoting possession or association.

Here are the names, along with the years in which the board relented and gave them back their punctuation:

● Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts, 1933). The locals simply wouldn’t stand for “Marthas Vineyard” and mounted an intense campaign. It worked.

● Ike’s Point (New Jersey, 1944).  The argument, according to the agency: “it would be unrecognizable otherwise.”

● John E’s Pond (Rhode Island, 1963). This would be unreadable without the apostrophe. And spoken, the name would sound like “John S.”

● Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View (Arizona, 1995). The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names argued that three apparent names in a row would be confusing. (The third name is a reference to a stand of Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) once captured on film by the photographer Carlos Elmer.)

● Clark’s Mountain (Oregon, 2002). Meriwether Lewis named the peak for William Clark, who climbed it in 1806. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Oregon Geographic Names Board, along with the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, asked that the apostrophe be restored.

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