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Uncle Sam's war on apostrophes

Federal mapmakers have been excising these little marks since 1890, and the Monitor's language columnist wonders why.

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It's high summer, that season of hitting the open road. If you still have an actual printed road atlas in your car, you may take a few minutes before you leave to glance over the map of your route and imagine the adventures that lie ahead of you.

And there you may spot signs of Uncle Sam's war against apostrophes.

Saxtons River, Vt., for instance, is so charming that the whole village has been put onto the National Register of Historic Places. It takes its name from the river that runs through it – a river named, according to local lore, for a surveyor who may or may not have fallen into it.

Whether he fell in or not, the Board on Geographic Names (BGN), part of the United States Geological Survey, officially recognizes no apostrophe in the name of either the river or the village.

Here's what the board's website has to say about apostrophes: "Since its inception in 1890, the US Board on Geographic Names has discouraged the use of the possessive form – the genitive apostrophe and the 's.' The possessive form using an 's' is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed. The Board's archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy."

This is the great thing about the Web: You can hit a bureaucratic stonewall in just seconds, instead of standing in line for hours before finding out that the rules are the rules, even if there's no explanation for them.

But actually, the board does go into a little more detail farther down the same page: "The probable explanation is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features because, 'ownership of a feature is not in and of itself a reason to name a feature or change its name.' "

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