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Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume 2
A Bad Idea
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.
Useful References. (Pick one per project, and stick with it)
This edition is more recent than mine; maybe they've codified the rule about more than one DVD.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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’.