ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Thumbs Up, Thumbs-Up or Thumb's Up?

Updated on September 25, 2014

Two Thumbs Up (and One Down)


The Proper Spelling For Thumbs Up

As you may know, I am a member of the Apostrophe Protection Society and have written a guide to The Care and Feeding of Apostrophes. Apostrophes are very important to me. But one question has long stymied me: how to spell thumbs up.

This has nagged at me for years. So today I have decided to get to the bottom of the mystery.

How Do YOU Spell Thumbs Up? - Grammar By Committee: A Million Text Message Users Can't Be Wrong!

So, how do YOU spell thumbs up?

See results

Thumbs Up: A Mini Grammar Lesson

This Is What Puzzled Me

Apostrophes are used for two things, and ONLY two things.

(1) Possession. The possessor, or owner, is indicated by an apostrophe + s.

Example: Today's weather forecast is bad news for brass monkeys.

"Thumb" does not own "up". Therefore, it would be incorrect to use an apostrophe to show possession.

(2) Contraction. When words fuse, an apostrophe indicates where a letter has dropped out.

Example: He's making a list; he's checking it twice. ("He's" is short for "he is".)

Here is where I was stuck.

Perhaps, when we say thumbs up, we mean the thumb is up, just as the surf's up?

In fact, looking around the web, many people have argued exactly that, and one of my commenters has reported a college professor standing by the apostrophe for this reason.

However, as a humble classics MA, I'm going to have to differ with said prof. Here's why.

For Those in a Hurry...

After some research, I've determined that

thumbs up

is the most common spelling, but


is also acceptable.

Thumbs Up by alifarid on Stock Xchng
Thumbs Up by alifarid on Stock Xchng

TWO Thumbs Are Up?

Hollywood Is ALWAYS Accurate, After All

Then I got to think about Siskel and Ebert, famous movie reviewers who often gave "two thumbs up!"

For them, the word "is" is clearly not involved. "Two thumbs is up" would be terrible grammar.

They were using two thumbs. Plural nouns do NOT use an apostrophe, except to indicate possession. Once again, up is not owned by thumbs, so there is no reason for an apostrophe.

Once Gene Siskel passed away, Roger Ebert did not cease giving two thumbs up, even though he sadly no longer had the services of Siskel's thumb. In fact, Ebert has registered "Two thumbs up" as a trademark, so I should really be spelling it "Two thumbs up ®".


The Romans Were All Thumbs

The Apocryphal Origin of Thumbs Up

Supposedly, the expression "thumbs up" comes from the ever-practical Roman along with concrete and pay toilets.

According to popular lore, victorious gladiators looked to the emperor for instructions after winning a duel. Thumbs up meant the loser could live to collect another paycheck. Thumbs down meant an ex-gladiator.*

The Romans, like SIskel and Ebert, possessed multiple thumbs. So again, the idiom cannot be a contraction: there ARE thumbs up, not IS, so thumbs cannot be a contaction for "thumb is". That eliminates one of two reasons to use an apostrophe.

Up was not possessed by thumbs in Roman times any more than now, so there is no possession involved. That's The Exorcist in the next theater over; we're watching Gladiator.

"Thumbs up" is therefore an idiom like "watch out" (out of what?) or "heads up."

Confusingly, some sources from the 1800s use "thumbs up," while others (like Merriam-Webster's) use "thumbs-up".

Close-Up of Vestals Giving "Pollice Verso"
Close-Up of Vestals Giving "Pollice Verso" | Source

Did The Romans Really Use Thumbs Up/Down?

And What Is the Latin For Thumbs Up or Down?

It is unclear what gesture the Romans actually used. The Latin phrase for "thumbs up" is pollice verso, which literally means, "turned thumb." Turned in? Out? Up? Down?

I don't know, and other classics scholars don't know either. Thumbs up or down may have evolved into the gesture we know today after Roman times, or it may be a Hollywood invention.

However, the Romans certainly used thumbs in some manner to indicate approval or disapproval.

Note that in some countries, to this day, the thumbs up gesture is considered obscene and rude. Check out this excellent article on the history and meaning of thumbs up for more information and several quotes.

Thumbs Up Has It


All Right, Enough Beating Around the Bush

What we need are examples.

So, first of all, the aforementioned article quotes four sources from the 1800s which use thumbs up, and a 1967 source which uses thumbs-up.

Thumbs Up


For what it's worth, my poll at the top of this page has thumbs up leading by a clear margin.

In conclusion, conventional usage, many respected dictionaries and arbiters of English, and early sources for the phrase seem to give thumbs up a thumbs up.*

I have not found any dictionary or style manual that spells the phrase with an apostrophe.

*You will have to pry the Oxford comma out of my cold, dead fingers, especially after what happened to poor Nelson Mandela.

I hope you've learned something from this exercise in grammatical pedantry. If you liked it, why not give it a thumbs up?

© 2011 Ellen Brundige

Wait! Before You Go... - Drop a Note or Leave a Thumbs Up!

Submit a Comment
  • franchesca-contents profile image

    F R A N C H E S C A 

    6 months ago

    This is a cool content! Stay smart and curious! :)

  • profile image


    5 years ago

  • Countryluthier profile image

    E L Seaton 

    9 years ago from Virginia

    Thumbs up. This is one of those mysteries that I had to get to the end of the lens to be a better write. Thumbs up yet again to you squiddly one!

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    I use 'thumb's up' when I speak of a thumb's up, but I would write 'thumbs up' if I am saying I wish each of my lenses had twenty thumbs up for it, lol.

    When I taught, I'd review lessons by asking questions with two choices and instructing the entire class to show me a discreet thumb up for A and thumb down for B. It let me check everyone's understanding and discover areas that needed reteaching easily and quickly. :D

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    How about I give it THE thumbs up - which is how I've always heard it...and a SquidAngel Blessing for your exactitude!

  • mythphile profile imageAUTHOR

    Ellen Brundige 

    9 years ago from California

    @Wendy Leanne: Oh, drat! You see, I always spelled it as your professor did, but several friends of mine, including both librarians and English majors, have called me on the habit. So I went in search of evidence. Unsurprisingly, it's found both ways all over the net. Squidoo is not a reliable source; there are broken apostrophes in several places. However, I thought the online Encyclopedia Britannica, Merriam-Webster's and Oxford English Dictionary were trustworthy sources!

    I think I may need to visit that most antiquated of institutions, the library, to resolve this question once and for all.

  • Wendy Leanne profile image

    Wendy Leanne 

    9 years ago from Texas

    My Senior year of college I had to take Advanced Modern Grammar. Our professor told us it's thumb's up because it is in fact short for saying "my thumb is up." Also, it would be grammatically incorrect to say you give something a thumbs up since "a" represents singular and "thumbs" is plural. But giving a thumb's up would be acceptable.

    Your thoughts about the Romans really made me pause. You're right. I remember learning that it was a "turned thumb." We all just assumed it was a thumb's up or thumb's down. Very interesting. I wish we knew for sure what their gesture was.

    My husband is well traveled, having served in the military, and he told me that in some countries a thumb's up is the same as the American gesture for up yours. That would sure stink to be gesturing someone "good job" and they think you meant something rude.

    Squidoo agrees with you. My angel tool says "thumbs up." This is the first lens I'm blessing in my newly assigned "English & Writing" neighborhood. Thumb's up. ;)


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)