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Rules, Policies, and Judgment Calls

Readers seemed to enjoy “Are Two r’s One Too Many?” our column about the pronunciation of February. But we also received a few emails like this one: “Why on earth is there an apostrophe in the title??”

We understand the reader’s concern. Starting in grade school, English teachers rail against sentences like “Banana’s make good snack’s.” Students learn early on that only careless or clueless writers use apostrophes to pluralize nouns.

However, there are certain exceptions. When a rule leads to perplexity rather than clarity, writers and editors will make adjustments. For instance, the use of apostrophes strikes us as the simplest and most practical way to pluralize is and was in a sentence like Jones uses too many is’s and was’s. You may feel you have a better solution, but the is’s and was’s solution is not wrong. It is endorsed by many reputable language authorities.

These days, initialisms like TV or RSVP are made plural simply by adding a lowercase s without an apostrophe: TVsRSVPs. But to pluralize abbreviations that end in S, we advise using an apostrophe: They sent out two SOS’s.

Imagine the confusion if you wrote My a’s look like u’s without apostrophes. Readers would see as and us, and feel lost.

This brings us back to our title and the phrase “two r’s.” The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) endorses “Mind your p’s and q’s.” The Practical English Handbook by Floyd C. Watkins, William B. Dillingham, et al., sanctions “four c’s,” but the book also accepts “four cs,” presumably because the difference between c in italics and s in roman typeface is sufficient for attentive readers.

There is no definitive rule for using apostrophes (or not) to form plurals in special cases like these. For many decades The New York Times wrote the 1920’s. Then the paper changed its policy in late 2012, and now writes the 1920s like most of the rest of us. And though CMOS recommends “p’s and q’s,” it prefers yeses and nos to yes’s and no’s. One wonders if CMOS would prefer ises and wases to is’s and was’s—because to us, ises and wases is too obscure to be a practical solution.

So to avoid similar confusion, we went with “Two r’s” and not “Two rs” in our title. We didn’t feel comfortable signing off on something that looked like a typo.

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Posted on Monday, February 9, 2015, at 4:23 pm

What Have We Learned This Year?

To close out 2014, we have put together a comprehensive pop quiz based on the year’s grammar tips. The quiz comprises twenty-five sentences that may need fixing. Think you can fix them?

Our answers follow the quiz. Each answer includes, for your convenience, the title and date of the article that raised the topic.

This quiz is by no means a pushover. Good luck, and we hope to see you back here after the holidays.

A Year of Blogs in Twenty-five Questions

1. The day was cold, cloudy, and a storm was coming.

2. He is either coming with us or he is waiting for the next train.

3. My friend (and her brother) are arriving today.

4. Dobbs is one of those people who loves Jane Austen.

5. A collection of books were on display.

6. She ordered him off of her property.

7. I asked him to lend me a couple dollars.

8. Both young actress’s dream is to play Juliet.

9. Roy and Juanita Simms arrived on foot because the Simms’ car was in the shop.

10. We were all in the mood for some New Orleans’ food.

11. When Nick writes a letter, you can’t tell his As from his Ss.

12. Who sang the song Bali Ha’i in the Broadway play called South Pacific?

13. Their favorite classic movies are based off of old fairy tales.

14. The couple was having their first quarrel.

15. A husband, who forgets anniversaries and birthdays, may be headed for divorce court.

16. A friend of mine, living in San Diego, loves the weather there.

17. My grandmother, Gladys, claimed she once had a drink with the writer, Norman Mailer.

18. When you decide to hone in on your weaknesses, you have a hard road to hoe.

19. That fancy place had a $18 dessert on the menu.

20. Some of Hemingway’s best books, i.e., The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, were written before 1950.

21. The exhibit includes major works by many iconic artists: Ernst, Klee, Picasso, etc.

22. The jeweler has unusual gems such as black opals, star garnets, alexandrites, etc.

23. When they doubled my salary, I literally started living like a king.

24. He suggested a Donne sonnet, but soon learned she was disinterested in poetry.

25. His claim of owning a diamond mine in Delaware begs the question, Is this man sane enough to be walking around?


Jumbo Pop Quiz Answers

An asterisk (*) indicates that there are more correct answers than one.

1. The day was cold, cloudy, and stormy.* (An Unparalleled Letdown, 2-18)

2. He is either coming with us or waiting for the next train.* (Simple Words, Fancy Label, 2-25)

3. My friend (and her brother) is arriving today. [(All About) Parentheses, 3-23]

4. Dobbs is one of those people who love Jane Austen. (The Wicked Of3-31)

5. A collection of books was on display. (The Wicked Of, 3-31)

6. She ordered him off her property. (More Of, 4-16)

7. I asked him to lend me a couple of dollars. (More Of, 4-16)

8. Both young actresses’ dream is to play Juliet. (Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble, 5-6)

9. Roy and Juanita Simms arrived on foot because the Simmses’ car was in the shop. (Apostrophes and Proper Nouns, 5-13)

10. We were all in the mood for some New Orleans food. (Apostrophes and False Possessives, 5-19)

11. When Nick writes a letter, you can’t tell his A’s from his S’s. (Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive, 6-3)

12. Who sang the song Bali Ha’i in the Broadway play called South Pacific? (Italics vs. Quotation Marks, 6-16)

13. Their favorite classic movies are based on old fairy tales. (Based Off Is Off Base , 6-23)

14. The couple were having their first quarrel. (Collective Nouns and Consistency, 7-8)

15. A husband who forgets anniversaries and birthdays may be headed for divorce court. (Essential, but Is It Important? 8-19)

16. A friend of mine living in San Diego loves the weather there. (Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II, 8-26)

17. My grandmother Gladys claimed she once had a drink with the writer Norman Mailer. (Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III, 9-2)

18. When you decide to home in on your weaknesses, you have a hard row to hoe. (A House Is Not a Hone, 9-23)

19. That fancy place had an $18 dessert on the menu. (Wails from My Inbox, 10-2)

20. Some of Hemingway’s best books (e.g.The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms) were written before 1950.* (Note also the added parentheses in the sentence.) (i.e. vs. e.g.10-7)

21. The exhibit includes major works by many iconic artists: Ernst, Klee, Picasso, et al. (All About etc., 10-15)

22. The jeweler has unusual gems such as black opals, star garnets, and alexandrites. (All About etc., 10-15)

23. When they doubled my salary, I really started living like a king.* (Fighting for Literally, 11-11)

24. He suggested a Donne sonnet, but soon learned she was uninterested in poetry. (Don’t Dis Disinterested, 11-18)

25. His claim of owning a diamond mine in Delaware raises the question, Is this man sane enough to be walking around?* ( Begging the Question, 12-1)


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Posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2014, at 7:40 pm

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.

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

Apostrophes: Dueling Rules

There are various guidelines for apostrophes, but only three rules that everyone agrees on: To show possession for a noun that is singular and does not end in s, add ’s (Joe’s lunch). If the noun is plural but does not end in s, add ’s (the people’s choice). If the noun is plural and ends in s, add just an apostrophe (the leaves’ bright colors).

Beyond these, the experts are at odds. For instance, how should we write the possessive of singular proper nouns ending in s? The two foremost American authorities on written English, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and The Associated Press Stylebook (AP), have irreconcilable policies. AP prefers adding only an apostrophe (Charles’ book), whereas CMOS recommends adding ’s (Charles’s book). Take your pick.

Here are some other apostrophe debates …

CMOS adds just an apostrophe when a noun ending in s is the same whether singular or plural. The guidebook offers three examples: politics’ true meaning, economics’ forerunners, and this species’ first record. The staff agrees with politics’ and economics’, but prefers this species’s, because in normal English usage, species is just as likely to be singular as it is to be plural—one often hears “a species,” but who says “a politics” or “an economics”?

• With nouns ending in s, writes English scholar Roy H. Copperud, there are editors whose choice of either ’s or a lone apostrophe is based on such esoteric criteria as how many syllables are in the word; whether the accent falls on the last syllable; and whether the last syllable begins, ends, or both begins and ends with an s sound. If you’re shaking your head, you’re not alone.

• Many who generally add ’s to common and proper nouns ending in s make one huge exception: they drop the added s if pronouncing it would be awkward or uncomfortable. For example, since most people would not pronounce an s added to the possessive form of Mr. Hastings, these writers and editors prefer Mr. Hastings’ pen, not Hastings’s. And since most people would likely pronounce an added s if the pen belonged to Mrs. Jones, it should be Mrs. Jones’s pen, rather than Jones’.

It should be noted that CMOS does not concur, and prescribes ’s with no exceptions (other than the aforementioned politics, economics, etc.). We agree, because we do not assume that all careful speakers pronounce words the same. To what extent should the editing of written English be based on ease of pronunciation? That is a discussion worth having. But such a method does not account for vast differences in articulation within the diverse company of literate speakers of English worldwide.

Besides, anytime you don’t like the look or sound of a sentence, the easy way out is a rewrite. As CMOS points out, writing the first record of this species sidesteps the whole species’ vs. species’s predicament.

And when it comes to apostrophe rules, we see little to be gained from so many exotic exceptions and qualifications.

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Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2014, at 5:43 pm

Apostrophes and False Possessives

In English, nouns become adjectives all the time: a computer’s malfunction is also called a computer malfunction. One of Shakespeare’s plays is a Shakespeare play.

Consider the sentence Beverly Hills’ weather is mild. Like computer’s and Shakespeare’s in the previous paragraph, Beverly Hills’ is a possessive noun. But we could turn it into an adjective by removing the apostrophe: Beverly Hills weather is mild. Same with Abe Jones’s campaign is picking up steam—we could also say The Abe Jones campaign is picking up steam.

Few would argue with the apostrophe in The Beatles’ place in pop music history is assured. But how would you write this sentence: There are still countless Beatles/Beatles’ fans out there. Although many would choose Beatles’ fans, it should be Beatles fans—no apostrophe—because the sentence has turned Beatles into an adjective modifying fans rather than a possessive noun.

There are times when the distinction is trivial. There is no significant difference between General Motors cars are selling and General Motors’ cars are selling. But if you were to write We visited the General Motors’ plant in Wentzville, you’d be using a possessive noun where only an adjective should go.

Notice that the four examples above involve the nouns Hills, Jones, Beatles, and Motors. Nouns ending in s can tempt rushed or distracted writers to add a possessive apostrophe for no good reason. Many writers, including most journalists, add only an apostrophe to show possession when a proper noun ends in s. On a bad day, this can result in silly phrases like a Texas’ barbecue joint, a Sally Hawkins’ movie, or even the St. Regis’ Hotel, in which the apostrophes are indefensible.

Those who write such things would never dream of writing a Chicago’s barbecue joint, a George Clooney’s movie, or the Fairmont’s Hotel.

So whenever writers are of a mind to add a possessive apostrophe to a noun ending in s, they might first try swapping that word with one that ends in a different letter. If the result is nonsense, they’ll have ample time to revise the sentence and save themselves some embarrassment.


Pop Quiz
Mend any sentences that need fixing.

1. Julie Andrews singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work.
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones’ fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes’ approach to life.
4. Yolanda Adams music is infectious.
5. It was a Black Keys’ performance for the ages.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Julie Andrews’s singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work. (some would write Andrews’)
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes approach to life.
4. “Yolanda Adams music,” “Yolanda Adams’s music,” and “Yolanda Adams’ music” would all be acceptable.
5. It was a Black Keys performance for the ages.

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Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014, at 6:36 pm