Apostrophes seem so insignificant. They’re barely more than floating commas.
But the little toenail clipping of a punctuation mark can change the meaning of a word or sentence.
Metro Parks Tacoma officials know that. That’s why they cleared up a decade of confusion over Peoples Park this week.
Sorry. People’s Park.
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That’s now the official name of the park in Tacoma’s Hilltop.
The board of Metro Parks Tacoma officially named the park, and several others, cementing their names in paperwork, programs and signage.
But not all of the signage.
On Friday, a large bronze plaque on Martin Luther King Jr. Way read, “PEOPLES PARK.” No apostrophe.
Around the corner on South Ninth Street another sign stated, “PEOPLE’S PARK.” Apostrophe included.
“It’s just for people who notice grammar,” Metro Parks spokesman Michael Thompson said of the board resolution.
The panel took no action on Owen Beach and Wright Park. Some Tacomans mistakenly call them Owen’s Beach and Wright’s Park.
When asked about those grammatical misunderstandings, Thompson stammered.
“Oh my goodness ... oh,” is all he could muster.
Thompson is a former copy editor, a profession obsessed with grammar and consistency.
But Thompson and the rest of Metro Parks aren’t going to take a wrecking ball to any of the “Peoples” at People’s.
“We are not in a hurry to spend public resources to replace perfectly good signs,” he said.
In 2010, the city of Tacoma deeded “Peoples Park” and several others to Metro Parks Tacoma. Metro Parks had long managed the nearby People’s Community Center, which is owned by city.
“So now we had People’s Center with an apostrophe and Peoples Park without an apostrophe,” Thompson said.
In the 1960s, the facility was called the Malcolm X Center. On Sept. 3, 1977, a group of citizens overwhelmingly voted to change the name to the People’s Center.
This fall the center will have a new indoor swimming pool in addition to its apostrophe.
While both peoples and people’s are grammatically correct, they have different meanings. Peoples Park suggests a park that represents many peoples. People’s Park is a park that belongs to The People.
“This is the sort of thing that will keep copy editors up at night,” Thompson said.
WHY APOSTROPHES MATTER
Indicating possession is what a good apostrophe does. John’s house belongs to him, whereas Johns House might be named after Mr. Johns.
But sometimes it’s hard to tell when a possessive apostrophe is needed.
All correct: Driver’s license, Alzheimer’s disease and Hudson’s Bay Co.
Tacoma Farmers Market is also correct no matter how badly you want to add an apostrophe. And Starbucks treats punctuation like yesterday’s drip.
Even longtime Northwesterners can mistakenly make words possessive when they’re not. The apparel giant Nordstrom doesn’t call itself Nordstrom’s, for instance.
Sometimes folks can get lackadaisical about using apostrophes.
Auburn has a River’s Edge apartment complex while Orting has a Rivers Edge Church. They can punctuate as they please: Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are both guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Some apostrophes, or the lack thereof, are confounding. Is Puyallup hot tub dealer Aqua Rec’s an attempt at a plural, or is Mr. Aqua Rec in possession of a vast jetted tub empire?
Meanwhile, Tacoma waterfront eatery C.I. Shenanigans has lost an apostrophe in its corporate name – though not on the sign of its Ruston Way building – if indeed the restaurant was named for a Mr. or Miss Shenanigan.
The apostrophe’s other job is joining two words, like a grammatical glue. Thus “it is” becomes it’s.
And there’s a world of difference between its and it’s.
“Acme Refuse knows its garbage” has a completely different meaning from “Acme Refuse knows it’s garbage.”
Sometimes a contraction just helps sentences flow easier. Many a jokester has turned Olympia Beer’s “It’s the water” slogan to “It is water.”
Because they are pronounced identically, “it’s” and “its” can confuse harried writers. Even a professional one working for a newspaper with editors who set unrealistic deadlines for him.
Incorrect contractions abound in conversation. But you won’t see a reporter write “ain’t” in the newspaper.
Except maybe just then.
THE SCIENCE (FICTION) OF NAMES
In addition to its decision on People’s Park, the Metro Parks board gave “Ryan’s Park” an apostrophe. It’s named after Ryan Alan Hade.
But the board officially named “Cummings Park” without an apostrophe. Which is good, seeing how it was named after the Cummings — not Cumming — family.
A still to be named addition to Point Defiance Park is in Tacoma’s future. The 11-acre former Asarco slag heap turned green peninsula will need a moniker. The naming process will start sometime this year, Thompson said.
There’s been a yearslong movement to name it after Tacoma science fiction writer Frank Herbert, author of “Dune.”
Dune Heap has a nice ring to it.
While Metro Parks will continue to establish the official names for its parks, Thompson is OK with the public calling them whatever it likes.
“The copy editors at Metro Parks can live with it,” he said.