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What's up with Apostrophes?

When I see an apostophe in a name, I know that the name is possessive (eg‑ Tom's Place). It turns out that when it comes to a community or feature name, it's not so clear.

In one book, you might see an apostrophe in a community's name. In another book, the apostrophe is missing.

What's going on? Well, it's complicated

The first time I noticed a missing apostrophe, I did a little research. The story I heard had to do with map makers and cartographers. I was told that traditionally, the apostrophe was removed because it might be confused with a feature on the map.

For example, consider a community located on the water-front and whose name is written on a navigation map. If the name extends over the water, the apostrophe might be confused as a rock - a navigation hazard.

Whether the apostrophe was retained or dropped depends on the purpose of the map and the style of the map maker. This ambiguity led to map makers creating competing and conflicting maps.

If you had two maps, one where a name had an apostrophe and the other without the apostrophe, which name was correct?

These types of conflicts led to confusion between federal agencies and their various maps.

To address this issue, the United States government created the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN). The BGN was established in 1890 with the purpose of standardizing geographic names and spellings through-out the government. For more on the BGN and placenames, see our Placename Rules.

While the BGN usually removes the apostrophe from placenames, this isn't an absolute - an example of this is Martha's Vineyard.

The decisions of the BGN are compulsory on federal agencies, but they are only recommendations outside of the government. Some communities have chosen to keep the apostrophes in their name.


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This page was last modified/updated: 24 Nov 2023