British council bans apostrophes from street names

In a move that is sure to rile grammarians the world over, the Mid Devon District Council is planning a ban on apostrophes in street names to avoid "potential confusion," according to the BBC (the official pronouncement is largely symbolic, since only three streets in the district currently have apostrophes). Already, Britons like proofreader Mary de Vere Taylor of Ashburton are speaking out against the proposed prohibition:

"It's almost as though somebody with a giant eraser is literally trying to erase punctuation from our consciousness," she told BBC News.

She said there was something "terribly British and terribly reassuring" about well-written and well-punctuated writing.

The North Devon Journal adds that the North Devon Council and Torridge District Council have implemented bans as well:

While Torridge has an official policy against the use of apostrophes North Devon's assistant chief executive Anne Cowley said although it was not a council policy it is historic practice not to use apostrophes in street names.

"When the council names a new street the details are entered onto the Local Street Gazetteer," she said.

"This feeds into the National Street Gazetteer and there are no street names on the Local Street Gazetteer for North Devon containing an apostrophe followed by a letter S."

The debate about apostrophes in public signage is actually not new in Britain. In 2009, for instance, the Daily Mail profiled a "punctuation hero" who was accused of being a vandal after he pained a missing apostrophe on a sign near his home (the man also refused to get in the 'five items or less' line at the supermarket because the notice should read, 'five items or fewer'). 

That same year, the Birmingham City Council got in a feud with the U.K.'s Apostrophe Protection Society -- yes, the Apostrophe Protection Society -- after authorities refused to add apostrophes to the city's road signs. "I have done my own research into the use of the possessive apostrophe in place names," one council member declared in defending the decision.

As for the latest punctuation dustup, the Mid Devon District Council's statement declares that "our proposed policy on street naming and numbering covers a whole host of practical issues, many of which are aimed at reducing potential confusion over street names." Careful readers will notice that the statement does not include a single apostrophe.


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Saudi swordsman unconcerned about country's transition away from beheadings

Last week, the Saudi daily Al-Youm reported that Saudi Arabia is considering transitioning away from the state's institutionalized method of executing convicts: beheading by sword. Beheading -- the approach to carrying out death sentences in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century -- has long been practiced in the kingdom in observance of its strict interpretation of Islamic law, which seeks to mimic practices at the time of Mohammed. But a committee of Saudi government officials recently ruled that execution by firing squad would also be permissible under the national brand of sharia.

"This solution seems practical, especially in light of shortages of official swordsmen," the committee explained in a statement quoted by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. The committee also complained that official swordsmen have been known to show up late to executions.

Does this mean those few remaining swordsmen will be out of a job soon? It turns out the Saudi newspaper Okaz asked one of them: Mecca-based executioner Mohammad Saad al-Biishi. He says he's not concerned, citing the fact that he's already received firearms training. In the meantime, he'll keep on with the beheadings.

"I just returned from Ranyah governorate, where one of the judgments was implemented with a blow from a sword," he told the paper.

Even if the transition to firing squad occurs, al-Biishi is optimistic about the future of his profession, and has been apprenticing his son in beheadings. He acknowledges, though, that the government's concerns about a shortage of qualified swordsmen are justified. "This profession is not desired by many," he told Okaz, "despite the salary and personal reward we gain from it."

The execution business in Saudi Arabia is booming. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 70 people were beheaded in the kingdom last year, and 14 so far this year. The January execution of a Sri Lankan national, who was accused of the murder of a 4-year-old in her care as a maid while still a 17-year-old minor, prompted Sri Lanka to recall their ambassador from Riyadh last month.

Marya Hannun contributed to this post.