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.



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