What does Nova Scotia have against the apostrophe?

If you’ve driven along certain highways or back roads in Nova Scotia, there’s a good chance at some point you’ve spotted a road sign and paused for half a second to question what you just read.

No, not, “Is Stewiacke really halfway between the North Pole and the equator?”

Or “How many Pubnicos are there, anyway?” (Answer: at least seven, including Pubnico, Lower West Pubnico, West Pubnico, East Pubnico, Lower East Pubnico, Centre East Pubnico, Middle West Pubnico and, depending on whom you ask, also Middle East Pubnico and Upper West Pubnico.

Not even the perpetually burning question, “Who was Peggy, and why does she get a cove named after her?”

Rather, you may have given some brief consideration to the question of a small, geographically endangered punctuation mark: the apostrophe.

Clearly, some disagreement exists about the use of apostrophes in Peggys Cove, N.S. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

Contrary to popular belief, few official Nova Scotia place names have apostrophes.

That may come as a surprise to some readers of CBC Nova Scotia’s website, who take time out of their day to file a typo report when they spot an apostrophe-less place name.

According to Colin MacDonald, the province’s director of geographic information services, there are only 19 community names, like L’Ardoise and Bras d’Or, with apostrophes, but only four of those have a possessive-style apostrophe:

  • the town of Clark’s Harbour.
  • the Mi’kmaw reserve of Fisher’s Grant. 
  • the municipal district of St. Mary’s.
  • the village of St. Peter’s.

MacDonald said those places may have gotten their names through a charter, an order in council or legislation, in which case an apostrophe would be accepted.

There is no apostrophe in Head of St. Margarets Bay, but why there is no period after ‘St’ in this sign is anyone’s guess. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

While there’s no rule in the books prohibiting possessive apostrophes now, MacDonald said there was a 1963 policy at the Geographic Names Board of Canada discouraging their use.

That policy was likely influenced by a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) rule dating back to the 1930s disapproving of apostrophes.

“It may not have looked nice on maps, or I’ve also heard that they really didn’t want to have an apostrophe because the ownership of the feature that’s being named didn’t lie with that name that was being used,” MacDonald said. “So it wasn’t actually a possessive.”

While those old guidelines may have pushed the apostrophe to the brink of extinction in Nova Scotia place names, the punctuation mark is making something of a comeback, MacDonald said.

Applications for place names with possessive-style apostrophes can be approved if the proper form of the language calls for an apostrophe and if the name is well-known and in public use by the community.

Before approving new names, staff research the history of the place as far back as they can, including on maps dating back to the 1600s.

The naming office generally does not approve applications to name a geographic feature after an applicant — “or there would be MacDonald’s lakes everywhere,” MacDonald said.

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