Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive

Apostrophes’ chief purpose is to show possession, but these marks have other functions, too. They alert readers when, and where, one or more letters are missing from a word, such as the no that is dropped when cannot becomes can’t. Or they create separation to avoid confusion when two elements are combined for special reasons. For example, in When Colin writes a’s, they look like u’s, the apostrophes prevent us from thinking that the writer meant as and us. It’s hard to imagine any credible writer not using apostrophes for a’s and u’s, but beyond that, apostrophe unanimity is hard to find.

Apostrophes have a complicated relationship with plurals. Different writers have different approaches when writing the plural forms of abbreviations, some letters and numbers, and words that do not normally take plurals.

• What’s the plural of an abbreviation with periods, like Ph.D.? There’s no right answer. Some write Ph.D.s, some write Ph.D.’s.

• Most writers use apostrophes when pluralizing single capital letters (I earned three A’s), but there are some who would write three As. With groups of two or more capital letters, apostrophes seem less necessary (two new MPs, learn your ABCs), but some writers insist on them.

• Single-digit numbers are usually spelled out, but when they aren’t, you are just as likely to see 2s and 3s as 2’s and 3’s. With double digits and above, many (but not everyone) regard the apostrophe as superfluous. Most writers nowadays favor the 1900s, but some go with the 1900’s. If numerals are used to identify decades, the ’30s is widely used, but you will also see the 30’s, and occasionally even the ’30’s.

• A keyboard caveat: it takes extra effort to generate an apostrophe when it is the first character in numbers or words like the ’30s or ’tis (for “it is”). If you’re not careful, you’ll instead type an opening single quotation mark (), which is a backward and upside-down apostrophe. The result will be the30s and ‘tis, which finicky readers consider an indefensible lapse.

• Making words plural with ’s is usually a big mistake, but some writers, as a courtesy to readers, will add ’s to words that don’t ordinarily become plural, as in no if’s, and’s, or but’s, or here are some do’s and don’t’s. Since two apostrophes in one word look clunky, you are more likely to see do’s and don’ts, which looks better, although don’ts is inconsistent with do’s. A better option might be to use italics to establish differentiation: no ifs, ands, or buts; some dos and don’ts.

• Let’s close with a possessive-apostrophe principle that confuses a lot of people. For the plurals of familiar compound nouns like driver’s license and master’s degree, the apostrophe stays the same; the plurals are driver’s licenses and master’s degrees. You may ask why not drivers’ licenses—after all, we’re talking about more than one driver, aren’t we? Well, yes and no. The driver’s in two driver’s licenses denotes that each license was issued to one driver only. The same reasoning applies to master’s degrees.

No punctuation mark causes more confusion and dissent than apostrophes. If we could get together on the rules, maybe people would use them more.

 

Pop Quiz

Find the incorrect sentence(s).

1. You used too many ands in that paragraph.
2. Today’s multiplication exercise will focus on 6’s and 7’s.
3. The decade of the ‘80s was marked by scandals.
4. In her note, the Ls all looked like Es.

 

Pop Quiz Answer

Three of the sentences would be acceptable to at least some editors and publishers. The one incorrect sentence is No. 3: The decade of the ‘80s was marked by scandals. Make it ’80s, with an apostrophe.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at 3:29 pm


Sic for Sick Sentences

We have noticed a dismal new trend: not capitalizing words that need it. Flouting the rules of capitalization is yet another indignity visited upon our beleaguered language by self-appointed visionaries who seem hellbent on transforming standard English, even though many of them can barely read, write, or speak it.

From a recent magazine article: “ ‘i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms,’ he emailed me.”

The writer of this piece chose not to point out that his correspondent should have capitalized “i” and “maybe.” It highlights an interesting problem: how to alert the reader when a direct quotation is in flawed English.

This is what the bracketed editor’s mark [sic] was invented for. The [sic] mark is found only in direct quotations, always enclosed in brackets. In formal writing, an author or editor inserts [sic] directly after a word or sentence to notify readers that something is off or incorrect but is reproduced exactly as it originally appeared (sic means “thus” in Latin). In the passage at hand, the “i” would be easy to deal with: “i [sic] am just now noticing …”

The “maybe” is more problematic. The use of [sic] has its practical limits. You’d never see “m[sic]aybe happy people have long arms.” And if the author wrote “maybe [sic] happy people have long arms,” the [sic] would be so far from the offending m that a reader might miss the point and think the entire word maybe was somehow unacceptable. Nonetheless, this is the only realistic option where [sic] is concerned.

By not confirming who was responsible for the lowercase i and m, the writer ran the risk that his readers would blame him for the e-mailer’s lapses. Evidently, this was a risk he was willing to take.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences demonstrate bad habits that one sees frequently nowadays. Can you cure what ails them?

1. The real problem in such cases are the criminals.

2. Chocolate is our childrens’ favorite desert.

3. She’s not here- she left an hour ago.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The real problem in such cases is the criminals. (It’s not pretty, but it’s correct.)

2. Chocolate is our children’s favorite dessert.

3. She’s not here—she left an hour ago. (Don’t use a hyphen to do a long dash’s work. Note: Some writers space long dashes on both sides, others (as here) use no spaces. Hyphens are never preceded or followed by a space.)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014, at 2:01 pm


Unusual Plurals of Abbreviations

Thanks to Lawrence K., who responded to my tip on forming plurals of symbols by pointing out that the plurals of some abbreviations are formed in ways other than by adding an s.

Example: pp. = pages

Example: sp. = species (singular); spp. = species (plural)

Example: cc., c.c., C.C., Cc, or cc = copy/copies or carbon copy/copies

Interesting Note: The original meaning of cc was carbon copy. Before photocopiers and computer printers, to make one or more copies of a document, carbon paper was placed between sheets of typewriter paper. Back then, as is the case today, the abbreviation was placed at the end of the document, followed by a colon and the name or location where the copy was sent. Fast forward some years…of course, your e-mail program has this feature, allowing you to send e-mails to any number of people.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, February 16, 2010, at 9:14 am


Abbreviations vs. Acronyms vs. Initialisms

Dictionaries don’t all agree on the definitions of these words and neither do style manuals. So I will attempt to shed more light on the distinctions.

Abbreviations
According to Dictionary.com, an abbreviation is a shortened or contracted form of a word or phrase, used to represent the whole, as Dr. for Doctor, U.S. for United States, lb. for pound.

Initialisms and acronyms are two types of abbreviations that are used to shorten phrases.

Initialisms are abbreviations that are pronounced one letter at a time.
Examples:
- FBI
- HTML
- IBM
- DVD
- BTW (by the way)
Note that most people would simply call these abbreviations, which is fine. Some would call them acronyms, which sticklers would challenge.

Acronyms are abbreviations that are pronounced as words.
Examples:
- NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
- AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
- OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)
- SPA (Society of Professional Accountants)
- WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant)
- ASAP (as soon as possible)
- Radar (radio detecting and ranging)
- Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)

Do you ever wonder about the origin of a word or when it came to be a common part of the language? According to Ask.com, the word acronym originated in 1943: “As wartime production of names using initials reached an all-time high, it was high time to give a name to the growing arsenal of alphabetic abbreviations. That need was met in a note in the February 1943 issue of American Notes and Queries: ‘Your correspondent who asks about words made up of the initial letters or syllables of other words may be interested in knowing that I have seen such words called by the name acronym, which is useful, and clear to anyone who knows a little Greek.’ ”
“Greek? Yes, acronym follows the model of other designations for types of words, like synonym, antonym, and homonym. The -nym means “a kind of word”; acro- means “top, peak, or initial,” as in acrobat or acrophobia.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, March 17, 2008, at 10:06 pm