Punctuation - in the form of a seemingly simple and insignificant apostrophe - has plunged an Ellicott City community into a full-fledged identity crisis.
The issue is this: Is the heavily traveled road that gives its name to a collection of neighborhoods St. John's Lane, or St. Johns Lane?
Even government officials don't seem to know. Motorists heading south on U.S. 29 pass four large exit signs for the lane - three with the apostrophe and one without. Apostrophes are absent on 17 of at least 25 county signs.
So it's no surprise that St. John's Lane Elementary School is just a short walk from North St. Johns Swim and Tennis Club. Or that St. John's Episcopal Church is listed in the county telephone book twice, with and sans apostrophe. Or that business owners in a nearby shopping center disagree whether the name is St. John's Station or St. Johns Station.
Most residents don't even notice. When it's pointed out, some couldn't care less.
"People are just so busy that they concentrate on the big picture and don't sweat the small stuff - like an itty, bitty apostrophe," said Andrea Thomas, who has lived for 10 years in the community of about 930 homes.
But some St. Johnsians think the debate - such as it is, carried out on signs, in tax records and other paperwork - isn't simply about whether the noun is possessive or not. It's good to know one's name, they say.
"I think it's important," said Barbara Sieg, a community resident since 1966 who is squarely in the apostrophe camp. "Historically, it's important; grammatically, it's important."
The lowly apostrophe can give people pause because its uses are so varied. It indicates the possessive case, stands in for a missing letter or letters and helps show the plurals of numbers, letters and abbreviations.
But Edwin Duncan, an associate professor at Towson University whose specialty is the history of the English language, said the apostrophe should never have been used for the possessive - it was a punctuation mistake.
Originally it was used for contractions, such as "can't" for "cannot." But about 400 years ago, in the time of Shakespeare, people started using the apostrophe to make nouns possessive, thinking it was a contraction for "his."
As far as Duncan is concerned, people should just add an "s" and skip the punctuation.
The history of grammar notwithstanding, St. John's residents want to punctuate their community's name as originally intended. And without the united front usually presented by street signs, they have had to fend for themselves.
The decision of most residents: "The apostrophe belongs," said Thomas, a board member of the St. John's Community Association, thumbing through the group's constitution and looking at the marks in question.
The Post Office is of another opinion.
"There's no apostrophe," said Marlin Johnson, Ellicott City's postmaster, after checking the office's records.
County policy is to avoid apostrophes in street names - 911 dispatchers don't care for them - but it's a relatively recent rule. St. John's Lane has had its moniker for at least a century.
But the winding road at the heart of the identity dispute used to have a different name altogether: Featherbed Lane.
Some residents, turning to 19th-century maps for answers, believe the road's current name was taken from St. John's Episcopal Church, which dates to 1821.
"That's the only St. John's around," Sieg said.
And note, she said, the apostrophe. Since the church took its name from the Christian apostle (whose name, she points out, "was not Johns"), Sieg thinks that's end of the argument.
The county traces road names back to the ones shown on plats, the maps detailing the lay of newly subdivided land. The Department of Public Works' real estate services division turned to the plats to figure out which of the county's signs are accurate.
"Normally there's a straightforward, 'Yes, the sign is wrong,' or 'No, the sign is right,'" said Tina Hackett, chief of the real estate services division.
"This time," she said, "both signs are right."
Of the two plats her staff consulted, one - from 1955 - is "St. John's." The other, from 1952, is "Saint Johns."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," said Sieg, after hearing the news. "Well, that pleases everybody."
Hackett isn't sure what, if anything, the county will do about the double name.
"Whether we'll change it, I don't know," she said. "Because if we change it, we'll have to tell everybody, 'This is the correct spelling,' and they'll have to correct everything they have."
In any case, the St. John's Community Association might not have to worry about it much longer. Members are thinking about changing the group's name to Dunloggin.
The purpose is to clear up another confusion - many people think of the area as Dunloggin anyway - but it would have an added benefit.
No punctuation. Period.
"Changing to Dunloggin would certainly eliminate that little problem," Thomas said.