Council claims database pain forced it to drop apostrophes from street names

What next, trouble at tmill?

A row in the UK has locals and council members at odds over apostrophes, and yes – this does actually have a tech angle. 

North Yorkshire Council recently decided to eliminate apostrophes from street names, because they and other punctuation marks simply don't get along well with geographical databases, apparently.

This did not go over well.

In the town of Harrogate, for example, a new sign for St Mary's Walk that reads "St Marys Walk" has been seen as a, er, sign of the general decay of the modern age. Speaking to the BBC, St Marys Walk folk urged the council to restore the apostrophe lest "everything go downhill." 

"I walk past the sign every day and it riles my blood to see inappropriate grammar or punctuation," railed one resident. The offending sign has had its apostrophe restored – not by the council, but by an enterprising grammarian with a black marker.

Apostrophes discouraged

This argument over grammar may be raging in the UK, but over in the United States, the thorny issue of punctuated place names was tackled more than a century ago with the the inception of the Board of Geographic Names, or BGN.

Established in 1890, the BGN's Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), as it is now called, "discourages" the use of the possessive apostrophe in place names, with only five exceptions granted since enforcement began: Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts; Ike's Point, New Jersey; John E's Pond, Rhode Island; Carlos Elmer's Joshua View, Arizona; and Clark's Mountain, Oregon.

While the GNIS doesn't define road names (those are governed at the state level) the precedent it set has generally been followed, with many rules in place throughout the US that discourage or ban the use of apostrophes in geographical place names – including roads. 

Speaking to the BBC, the English council argued UK-wide policy, similarly, was behind the change. 

"All punctuation will be considered but avoided where possible because street names and addresses, when stored in databases, must meet the standards set out in BS7666," a council spokesperson explained, referring to this British red tape

"This restricts the use of punctuation marks and special characters to avoid potential problems when searching the databases as these characters have specific meanings in computer systems," the spokesperson added. 

And while the spokesperson is correct that some jurisdictions have taken similar measures, it's important to note that others that tried to ditch this kind of punctuation changed course after similar public backlash. 

Meanwhile, a review of BS7666 found little mention of the topic – though we did find one mention in Chapter [PDF] of part two of the combined guidelines

"Abbreviations and punctuation should not be used," the rule states, "unless they appear in the designated name, e.g. 'Dr Newton's Way'." St Mary ought to have her walk, then, no?

That wording in the rule makes it seem an awful lot like there's no restriction on punctuation in BS7666. We've reached out to North Yorkshire Council to see about that justification – and whether it's just post-hoc justification for an aesthetic choice – and haven't heard back.

We have to wonder: What are they worried about? Someone proposing an avenue called Sir Bobby');DROP TABLE payroll;--? ®

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