Last week, Birmingham City Council announced that it was no longer going to put apostrophes in its street names. This caused an outcry in the press. I can only assume the council needs the publicity, because the placing of apostrophes in place names has been inconsistent in many places and for many years, and without anybody, apparently, noticing.

Take the London Underground. The Piccadilly Line has stations at King’s Cross and Earl’s Court, but next door to Earl’s Court is Barons Court.

Then there’s the East Coast main railway line out of King’s Cross. It has stations at Brookmans Park and Potters Bar. King’s Cross itself, and also King’s Lynn, at the other end of the First Capital Connect line, are both seen with and without the apostrophe.

There is an ambiguity in one of the Piccadilly Line’s northern stations: Arnos Grove. How is this pronounced? Does it depend on the name’s origin? If there is potentially an apostrophe in the name, then it is /ˈɑːnəʊz/, but if not, then presumably /ˈɑːnɒs/ is better. I can’t recall having heard an announcement that would clarify it for me. Perhaps both pronunciations are used indiscriminately.


  1. The apostrophe ‘outcry’ is an example of how some people take a scrap of grammar that they were taught at school and apply it with a bit too much enthusiasm. Names don’t need grammar in the way that common nouns do – they can be ‘misspelt’ (Wilde, Kwik Save) or be ‘plural’ names for singular things (Hills, Waters), or indeed not be English at all (Rio de Janeiro, Amoco, Prince’s ‘symbol’ name). Things can be labelled whatever way we choose (with or without apostrophes), but common nouns need a shared grammar to understand their reference.

  2. or referents

  3. As I had been losing sleep, thinking about whether Potters Bar should be Potter’s Bar or Potters’ Bar, I looked it up on Wikipedia etc. The excuse for Potters Bar is that it dates from circa the 13th century, but that will not help me sleep! Then I read Ric Morris’s (apostrophic) comment above and I think that might help. Thanks Ric.

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