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Controversy arises with apostrophe in walk’s title

Alumni and builders of the Scholars Walk are sparring over the use of an apostrophe.

Special to the Daily

Is it scholars or scholars’?

That question has been the source of disagreement between several alumni and those in charge of constructing the University’s Scholars Walk, the newly constructed $2.5 million pedestrian walkway connecting the McNamara alumni center to Northrop Mall.

The Scholars Walk is expected to celebrate the University’s most-accomplished alumni, including those who have won Nobel Prizes and Pulitzer Prizes.

Larry Laukka, a volunteer alumnus and Scholars Walk chairman, raised the apostrophe issue after reviewing communications pieces about the walk and noticing that the apostrophe was missing.

After talking with other alumni, he called for a discussion concerning the apostrophe and contacted Victor Bloomfield, the University’s Graduate School interim dean.

Withholding the apostrophe in the Scholars Walk’s title makes the phrase descriptive, while including the punctuation makes the term “Scholars’ ” both plural and possessive.

Bloomfield, who led the faculty committee in charge of selecting honorees for the Scholars Walk, said he disagreed with Laukka, leading to a discussion about the historical use of the apostrophe and modern trends in punctuation.

Laukka said he believes that although the apostrophe is historically a relatively new piece of punctuation, its use is warranted in this situation. Placing the apostrophe after the word “scholars” shows attention to detail and makes the work possessive, plural and classy, he said.

“The element of plural ownership provides a special condition, which sets the Scholars Walk apart from the ordinary and illuminates the meaning,” he said.

But Bloomfield said it’s an issue of the term being possessive.

“An apostrophe means the word is possessive,” Bloomfield said. “This is not intended to be possessive. It pertains to scholars but does not belong to scholars.”

Bloomfield provided the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as an example and said the memorial honors or pertains to the veterans in the same way the Scholars Walk honors scholars, but it does not belong to them, therefore omitting the apostrophe.

To resolve the dispute, Laukka said he elicited the help of Stephen Wilbers, the Star Tribune writing consultant and columnist.

After recognizing the validity of both arguments, Wilbers said, he agreed that possession in grammar is broad and an apostrophe is needed to avoid ambiguity.

“Why draw attention to the fact that scholars walk, when scholars read, scholars write and scholars publish, among other things?” Wilbers said. “In a way, it’s a small matter, on the other hand if a major university can’t get it right, who can?”

Wilbers said he suggested polling the University’s English department to answer the debate. He said he feels confident faculty members will favor the use of the apostrophe.

University English professor Joel Weinsheimer said he believes that what the majority of people would do in this situation is the correct course of action.

“Common usage is the ultimate arbiter of grammatical correctness,” Weinsheimer said. “Most people don’t know how to use possessive apostrophes at all.”

For Laukka, he said, the debate is about more than proper grammar.

“A number of us are traditionalists who think the apostrophe has been abused, misused and not used where it’s supposed to be,” Laukka said.

– Freelance editor Steven Snyder welcomes comments at [email protected].

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