Apostasy of an apostrophe Mark of time: Fells or Fell's? In centuries-old Baltimore neighborhood, no one really bothers to argue the point.

November 01, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The apostrophe is probably coming to the end of its usefulness, certainly for marking possession.

-- Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage

For two centuries, Fells Point has been living with one of the most unrelenting scourges of the Western World. Grammarians have dubbed it "The Great Apostrophe Plague." There is no known cure.

Fells or Fell's? The waterfront community can't make up its mind whether to use an apostrophe. (The Sun officially doesn't use an apostrophe in naming Fells Point, although since 1993 the newspaper has printed Fell's Point 83 times.) A sampling of store fronts in Fells Point tells the story of the wayward apostrophe:

At Lista's restaurant, the menu says Fells' Point. The Fells Point Cafe's menu reads Fell's Point Cafe. A flier in a window calls for a meeting of the Fell's Point Business Association -- and next to it is a decal of the Fells Point Business Association.

Bay Front Gifts sells Fell's Point post cards and T-shirts. There's the Admiral's (not Admirals) Cup at Fells Point, and a new restaurant is opening at the Admiral Fell Inn in Fell's Point.

And the Apostrophe Plague struck one business especially hard. The Fells Point Florist sells one Halloween headstone that reads, "Here lies Bill, departed Fell's Point in his sleep."

Sign in a Fells Point window: "An Olde Fashioned Candlelight Christmas in Historic Fell's-Point." Here, the first recorded appearance of the deadly apostrophe-plus-hyphen syndrome.

Is Fells or Fell's correct? The U.S. Census recognizes Fells Point. The historical marker in the public square says the community was established in 1726 by ship-builder William Fell. But the marker calls it Fells Point. But if it truly were his point, then it should be Fell's.

"Right, that's the historical spelling," says Romaine Somerville, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point. The society proudly preserves the apostrophe.

History does reveal an apostrophe existed in the name -- back when the apostrophe still had enough clout to mark the possessive case. In the "Chronicles of Baltimore" (1874), the area is first mentioned by a John Thompson in 1812. "Shortly after I received a blow with a club across my eyes, upon which I lay as if dead they took me out of the cart upon the causeway at Fell's Point." The apostrophe lived in dangerous times.

"History of Baltimore, Maryland" (1898) -- a wonderful, crumbling clunker of a book -- notes: "Fell's Point was always a nest of sailors." Robert Brugger's "Maryland: A Middle Temperament" reported that in 1745, Baltimore Town and Jones Town merged and "lot owners there jealously regarded the growing community downriver at William Fells's point."

No, not that weird "s's" thing! Luckily for future spellers, all other references in the book were reduced to Fells Point.

"As time went on, the apostrophe was eliminated," says Ms. Somerville, "because it was probably easier to spell that way."

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