A Word, Please: Who gets to make the language laws?

The Mid Devon District Council in southwestern England made headlines recently when it proposed to do away with apostrophes on street signs, changing King's Crescent into Kings Crescent and St. Paul's Square into St. Pauls Square.

Regular readers of this column can make an educated guess about where I stand on this. As I often say, language evolution can look like an atrocity in the short term. But looking at the big picture, you see that "errors" are how the language evolves. In language, all things that are now right were once wrong. Trying to resist this process is silly.

Anyone who's read my ramblings along these lines might surmise that I have no problem with the council's proposal. That guess would be wrong. On the contrary, I think it's a rotten idea, but not for the obvious reasons.

It's not because I believe our current rules for forming possessives should be protected. Actually, those rules stink.

English gives not one but four special jobs to the letter S, two of which pair it with an apostrophe.

The letter S is used to conjugate verbs (I walk, he walks, she walks). It's used to form plurals (one dog, two dogs). It's paired with an apostrophe to stand in for the verb "is" or "has."(He's wonderful. It's been fun.) And finally, S pairs with an apostrophe to form possessives of nouns (the dog's tail).

This last job is complicated by a different system for pronouns that make "its," not "it's," possessive and yet another system for plural possessives (the students' essays).

With rules this chaotic, it's no surprise that apostrophe use seems to be eroding. Technology could be driving another nail in the apostrophe's coffin, with URLs like macys.com dropping apostrophes. Plus, many professional publishers now prefer farmers market and teachers college to farmers' market and teachers' college.

The system is a mess, and if it's falling apart, history suggests it will eventually be replaced by something better. Sure, there will be confusion in the meantime. But there's plenty of confusion now. In the long term, an apostrophe shake-up likely would create a better system than the one we labor under every day.

Nor does my objection to the Mid Devon proposal reflect a belief that governments should promote proper English or even set a good example. Governments have no business policing the language or even promoting good grammar and punctuation.

They should, however, use it.

Language evolution is a populist process. It starts at the grassroots level when people break established rules, using the language the way we want to. When enough of us use a word, phrase, etc., in a new way, academics and lexicographers make our choices official by documenting them. But they're just tallying our votes. We're the ones making the laws.

When an entity such as the Mid Devon District Council becomes one of the rule-breakers, they're actually positioning themselves as rule-makers. But language rules aren't theirs to make. They're ours.

It's not by accident that city council staff reports and state government websites use words like "favorable" and "beneficial" instead of "da bomb" and "rad." Such choices reflect an attempt by officials to conform to society's ideas about proper formal language. Our ideas. Government's role is to follow the language rules we set.

When officials start muscling in on our process for writing language laws, they're out of line. When they start passing ordinances and resolutions that have too much influence over language, they're way out of line.

So the message to the Mid Devon District leaders should be this: When we the English-speaking people rewrite the laws for possessive apostrophes, we'll let you know. Until then, we'll thank you to follow them.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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