Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume 2

A Bad Idea

I'm often tempted to carry one of these around and become the apostrophe vigilante. This, however, would be unwise.
I'm often tempted to carry one of these around and become the apostrophe vigilante. This, however, would be unwise.

Preposterous Apostrophes

Apostrophes are for contractions (he’s for he is, can’t for can not, etc.) or for possessives (the flower’s scent, Bob’s shirt, etc.). Apostrophes are not for plurals. But we see them being used on plural words all over the place. Who hasn’t seen signs that say, for example, “Carrot’s, $.99” or “Lottery Ticket’s Sold Here?” I’ve even seen signs where some plurals are apostrophized and some are not, like this: “No Dog’s or Cats Allowed.” This last example is the sort of thing that really gets up my nose. My friends often laugh at me when I start to rant about it, not because I’m saying anything particularly funny but because I get so worked up over something so seemingly trivial. But really, what is the problem here? Either plurals take an apostrophe or they don’t. (They don’t!) But, if they do, they all do, so the sign should stinking well say, “No Dog’s or Cat’s Allowed,” shouldn’t it?  I mean, I could forgive someone for mistakenly thinking that ’s = plural, but not for imagining that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, with no particular pattern to it. Language follows rules, and the rules are generally consistent. Exceptions are rare, and are usually holdovers from an earlier rule or else apply to a class of words borrowed from other languages (like alumnus/alumni or datum/data). But darn if there isn’t an exception to even this.

There’s no Rule!? But How Can We Grammar Geeks Feel Pompous and Superior?

I think I may have found the source for some of the confusion about apostrophes and plurals. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent rule for pluralizing abbreviations (like DVD or VCR), letters as letters, or numerical representations of centuries or decades. I’ve always talked about my collection of DVDs, and the silly clothes I wore back in the 1980s, and dotting my is and crossing my ts on the assumption that the s-with-no-apostrophe rule always applied. But imagine my chagrin when I got into an argument about it, had to go look it up to prove my point, and found that there is no agreement on what more than one DVD should look like in print.

It’s true.

Really.

Useful References. (Pick one per project, and stick with it)

The Chicago Manual of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style

This edition is more recent than mine; maybe they've codified the rule about more than one DVD.

 
The Little, Brown Handbook, 11th Edition
The Little, Brown Handbook, 11th Edition

Another more recent edition. Perhaps it includes a rule for more than one mp3?

 
The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications
The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications

If you think you can get by without a copy editor, get yourself one of these. After realizing that you're spending way too much time copy editing, hire a copy editor.

 
The Elements of Style: 50th Anniversary Edition
The Elements of Style: 50th Anniversary Edition

A bit of trivia: White of Strunk and White is the same fellow who gave us Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

 

Even the Authorities Don’t Agree


Here’s what it says on the subject in the Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition:

6.16 So far as it can be done without confusion, single or multiple letters, hyphenated coinages, and numbers used as nouns (whether spelled out or in numerals) form the plural by adding s alone. (See also 6.82)

And

6.17 Abbreviations having more than one period, such as M.D. and Ph.D., often form their plurals by the addition of an apostrophe and an s.

And

6.77 The plurals of italicized words [words used as the name of the word, and not to convey meaning] and terms are formed by the addition of s or es in roman type.

And

6.82 Individual letters and combinations of letters of the Latin (English) alphabet are italicized.… In some proverbial expressions the distinction is ignored, and in that case the plural is formed by adding an apostrophe and s. (See also 6.16)

And

8.40 …Decades may be either spelled out or expressed in numerals with apostrophes…. Note that no apostrophe is needed between the year and the s.

Alas, no mention is made of abbreviations without periods, such as DVD or VCR or CD, or even more confusing, combinations of numbers and letters, such as mp3. Is your head spinning yet? To make matters worse, the Little, Brown Handbook 5th Edition says:

23d Use an apostrophe plus –s to form the plurals of letters, numbers, and words named as words….

Exception: References to the years in a decade are not underlined and often omit the apostrophe. Thus either 1960’s or 1960s is acceptable as long as usage is consistent.

Apostrophic Apoplexy

So these two respected authorities contradict each other. According to the Chicago Manual, good students mostly earn As and sometimes Bs, but according to the Little, Brown Handbook, they earn A’s and B’s.

The Chicago Manual even allows for a contradiction when using “proverbial expressions,” leading to such confusing constructions as, “I thought he used too many Is in his article, but thought it best to mind my p’s and q’s and keep quiet about it.”

Chicago wants us to talk about the 1960s, but Little, Brown doesn’t seem to care if it’s the 60s or the 60’s!  Little, Brown seems to have no opinion on the following, but Chicago allows for the possibility of earning two Ph.D.’s without learning your ABCs. And neither authority seems to care how many DVD’s or CDs you have. What’s a grammar geek to do!? Maybe, given the utter confusion we’ve just experienced, we might consider not feeling so smug when we see a sign advertising "carrot’s."

My Personal Resolution

So what should we take from all this? No, have no fear, I'm not arguing for apostrophic anarchy. Language does follow rules. Sometimes it just takes a while for the rules to stabilize and for descriptive grammar to catch up with usage. But while we're waiting, I have this resolution to offer.

There’s a phrase in Little, Brown that I’ve adopted as my mantra when editing my own work and when working on projects for hire. That phrase is this: “as long as usage is consistent.” Consistency is the standard for clarity. Decide which style guide you're going to use for a given writing project and stick with it. It's probably best if you use the same guide for all of your projects if at all possible. If there are contradictions within your chosen manual, err on the side of consistency. If you’re going to mind your p’s and q’s, you probably shouldn’t dot your is and cross your ts. If you like the B-52s, then download their mp3s, but you’d better not pirate their CD’s. And for goodness’ sake, learn your ABCs before pursuing your Ph.D.s. Or else learn your ABC’s before pursuing your Ph.D.’s. ‘Cos if I catch you earning your Ph.D.’s after learning your ABCs, you sure won’t earn As, and I’ll be coming after you with my guns (NOT my "gun’s," dammit!) a-blazin’.

More by this Author


Comments 12 comments

Liano 6 years ago

Jeff,

I have a simple rule for these situations that I always follow and seems to work well, at least for me. If the last character of the graph I'm pluralizing is not a punctuation mark (regardless of typeface), I just add an s. If it is, then I use an apostrophe.

So I always write DVDs and ABCs and Is and 1960s (pretend that "I" is italicized - I can't figure out how to italicize it with this software), but Ph.D.'s.

My main reason for this is purely aesthetic - I would like to write Ph.D.s, but it just doesn't look right to me. It feels like the "s" is just hanging out there, while Ph.D.'s looks like the "s" is really part of the whole.

Recently I've been thinking of changing this rule so that if the last character of a graph I'm pluralizing is a period, I drop the period and just add s. So Ph.Ds instead of Ph.D.'s.

That is not yet viscero-graphically satisfying. Though it does present a certain appeal.

Of course this may not agree with any of the style books out there, but I like it and use it consistently.

Just my two cents.


Jennisis profile image

Jennisis 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

Ok, so now this brings up the matter of periods in abbreviations. More recently I have seen a tendency to leave out the periods in abbreviations of degrees such as BS, AS, MBA, PhD, LVT. In addition, I am rarely seeing periods in acronyms such as SEMVMA (Southeastern Michigan Veterinary Medical Association), CVM (College of Veterinary Medicine), AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association), JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Association), AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association), etc.

Are we veterinary people just lazy, or is there a rule? :)

Also, huzzah for consistent apostrophication!


Liano 6 years ago

Jennisis,

I like leaving out the periods. It makes my rule work even better - makes it easier to stop using apostrophes when you're not using the possessive.

Anyone have an example of a situation where keeping the periods in an abbreviation is critical to the meaning?


jj200 profile image

jj200 6 years ago from My Bedroom

More good info on apostrophes. Consistency is important, and even though I have my own rules for apostrophe use, I tend to defer to whatever is being used around me in the situation. In a conversation, if someone else is adding it to 1960s, I will too, just so I am being clear to them.

I believe that for terms like DVD, CD and numerical years (there are probably more that fit here, but I can't think of any now), the "s" should be added without apostrophe. This is because these terms can be possessive. "The DVD's label came off." There's also, "1960's top pop songs were rubbish." I would say that in the latter example, rephrasing might be easy, "The top pop songs of 1960 were rubbish." But to prove a point, "1960" CAN be used with the possessive. If we are to make a rule, lets try not to confuse the general population by using an apostrophe when DVD is not being used as a possessive noun. Anyway, just thought I'd throw another brain into the discussion.

Also, for E.B. White's books, did he do his own editing? And for that matter, who edited "The Elements of Style," if anyone. I would sort of like to be a fly on the wall hearing Strunk and White discuss this new DVD, 1960, etc. problem we have. Imagine THEIR grammar geek fights!


Guest 5 years ago

Then there's that whole "1960s' top pop songs were rubbish" thing...


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Are you talking about the decade or the year? If the decade, the apostrophe goes after the s, as you typed above. If the year, it goes before the s. You can avoid the controversy by writing, "The top pop songs of the 1960s were rubbish."


HattieMattieMae profile image

HattieMattieMae 4 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

So what is a good grammar book in your opinion, cause I need one! lol


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi, HattieMatieMae,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Either of the books I mention above, the Chicago Manual of Style, or the Little, Brown Handbook, are good choices, as long as you're consistent in your usage. Some folks prefer the American Psychological Association's (often abbreviated as "APA") style book, but I've never even cracked the binding on that one.

The bottom line is consistency. If you're consistent in your usage, and your editor or client doesn't like a particular construction, it will be easy to do a find/replace. If you're consistent the meaning will be clear(er) even if you're using an grammatically incorrect construction. If you're not consistent, you'll just end up confusing people.


HattieMattieMae profile image

HattieMattieMae 4 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

Thank you Jeff, I'll look for one at the book store. Ha Ha, never thought I would be finding myself writing again after so many years, and although I've learned some at college, need to refresh my grammar skills.


4 years ago

Well, traditionally you also need an apostrophe at the START of a two-digit decade, thus: '60s, because you are dropping the "19" (just as the short forms of omnibus and aeroplane used to be written 'bus and 'plane). Everyday grammar does change over time.


trusouldj profile image

trusouldj 3 years ago from Indiana

Interesting.

Just read a 2 year old forum question from you about writing in notebooks. Do you have a hub about that? I'd love to read one. I am totally addicted to notebooks.


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 3 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Are you sure that question was from me? I don't remember writing it, and couldn't find it when I went looking...

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