Punctuating the debate

You can't keep a stubborn apostrophe down.

To this day, people milling about the funky waterfront neighborhood of Fells Point note for themselves the roving apostrophe attached to the town with the grammatically split personality. Consider: Fell's Point Visitors Center, Fells Point Development Corp., Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point, Fells Point Historic District, and the Fell's Point Citizens on Patrol. What's a grammarian to do?


"It makes me wince because I'm an English major," says Ellen von Karajan, executive director of the Fell's Point preservation society. "We stick to the traditional apostrophe because to our way of thinking, it was the point of the Edward Fell family."

English Quaker William Fell sailed into Baltimore's Northwest Harbor 278 years ago (give or take a month) and bought the marshy land surrounding the point. His son, Edward Fell, carried on the singular family name by establishing the harbor area as a separate city in 1763. Hence, the cape was named after the Fell family. Fell's Point, right? It's always been Bertha's Mussels and The Cat's Eye Pub, after all.


But history does not always excel in English or, perhaps, the area's historic nomenclature was never intended to mark ownership. It didn't help the apostrophe cause when William Fell first named his purchase "Fells Prospect."

This is really old news.

"No, the issue continues to be raised, and I don't think the debate will end," says von Karajan. "Everytime we turn around, there's an omission of the apostrophe." To put an exclamation point on her point, an Interstate 95 sign at Exit 57 directs motorists south to Canton and Fells Point. The preservation society's director (and English major) winces at the sight of the highway slight. And she is not the only one.

Mark Walker is a community activist and writer for The Fell's Pointer newsletter, which is unapologetically pro-apostrophe. This past week, Walker dropped a bombshell on The Sun, which has consistently eschewed a Fells Point apostrophe.

"We now have proof," Walker said.

At a preservation society meeting in December, town crier and historian Jack Trautwein delivered a presentation on his preliminary research into a book about the founding Fell family. All very interesting. An hour or so into his speech, Trautwein tossed in a tantalizing aside. Trautwein (occasionally seen around the point, in costume, announcing news from 1812) found perhaps the earliest official mention of the area. In 1792, Edward Fell placed an ad in the Maryland Gazette for the sale of property in "Fell's-Point." Never mind the phantom hyphen, note the spelling of Fell's, Trautwein told the preservation society. He also produced Gazette ads from that era where the hyphen was dropped but not the apostrophe in question.

"We all laughed - then we applauded," Walker says. "We've been trying to put this to rest, and now it's definitive."

Definitively maybe. Jennifer Etheridge, then-president of the Fell's Point Homeowners' Association, shared a story on the town's Web site. When she moved to the area, she bought a tobacco jar-style lamp from Brassworks. The store asked if she wanted an apostrophe on her lamp. She consulted the preservation society, which strongly recommended the additional punctuation.


Etheridge bought the lamp and apostrophe.

"I was, and am, happy with my decision, as I believe proper usage of the English language needs to be preserved, not butchered," she wrote.

On Thames Street, Claudia Towles and her husband, Thomas, faced down the apostrophe issue before naming their business. A fact-finding Google mission ensued, then the verdict: In recognition of the Fell family, the Towles family named their toy store aMuse of Fell's Point. There, the dashing apostrophe! No community backlash lashed back at them, although amusing comments keep coming, Towles says. Seems there are two kinds of people in this two-named town.

"We're a neutral party. I don't advocate an apostrophe. I don't lose my mind like some people do if I don't see it," she says. "I'm just among those who tend to overanalyze and really think about things thoroughly."

But the devil remains in the details. Martha had her vineyard, and Fell had his point. In grammar, possession is also nine-tenths of the law - which doesn't settle the local matter one bit.

"You have to have a little controversy in life, don't you?" Trautwein says. "And this controversy will go on - but the other side of it doesn't have a leg to stand on."


He wants to make "Fell's Point" official - maybe a town proclamation! Or, as the town crier also says, he might take the matter straight to Baltimore's City Hall. But the federal arbiter of all named geography remains a stickler for Fells Point. In fact, the little-known U.S. Board on Geographic Names has always discouraged the use of the possessive form.

"The Board's archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy," according to Frequently Asked Question No. 18 on its Web site. "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." Early cartographers didn't need the typographical hassle; neither did early boaters.

President Benjamin Harrison established the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 1890 to settle contradictions and inconsistencies of geographic names in the Western territories after the Civil War. In 1911, the board made national news by restoring the "h" to Pittsburgh. The board has also validated the name-splitting "Glen Burnie" and "Bel Air." Working with federal and state agencies, the Reston, Va.-based board continues to make binding decisions as the "central authority" for name problems and changes.

Since its inception, though, the board has approved only five apostrophes, including Martha's Vineyard ("after an extensive local campaign"), Ike's Point in New Jersey ("it would be unrecognizable otherwise") and John E's Pond in Rhode Island (because it would be confused as John S Pond). So, Martha, Ike and John get apostrophes but not William or Edward or any other Fell.

Oh, wouldn't things be so much simpler if it had been Edward Fells? Wait - the possessive would then be Fells' Point. Or, according to Rule 1 in The Elements of Style, the Baltimore neighborhood would be known as Fells's Point.

Try naming a toy store that.


Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.