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.

Posted on Tuesday, February 10, 2015, at 4:23 pm

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38 Comments on Rules, Policies, and Judgment Calls

38 responses to “Rules, Policies, and Judgment Calls”

  1. Tasar Ancalime says:

    Dear Grammar Book,

    I am wondering how you would respond to the following sentence:
    “The following report contains seven do’s and don’t’s.”
    Your rule seems to suggest that “don’t’s” would be the preferred written form for the plural of “don’t”, but is it acceptable to use multiple apostrophes in the same word?
    I would very much appreciate any advice you have regarding this situation.

    Best wishes,

    Tasar

  2. Sej Harman says:

    Why would one not use ARE in the second part of the above sentence? Is it because the writer has put the word “and” in italics (ises and wases) thus making this a three-word phrase? Or is it because the predicate is singular—“a practical solution”? Or, is there another reason I’ve missed?

    I probably would have written: “One wonders whether CMOS would prefer ises and wases to is’s and was’s—because ises and wases are too obscure to be a practical solution.

  3. Matt S. says:

    How about some wings to pull the items out above the rest of the language:
    There were ‘yes’s and ‘no’s, ‘a’s and ‘b’s, and W2s and ’10-99’s.

  4. Angelo S. says:

    If I may, I would like to offer my opinion on RULES, POLICIES, & JUDGMENT CALLS. I disagree with the concept of a “judgment call” with regard to grammar in general and specifically in the situations that you cite. These too are to be governed by established “rules and policies” which in past two decades or so have been disregarded — or downright discarded.

    I disagree with writing a’s, r’s, p’s, and q’s in order to pluralize the letters concerned. I think this is just incorrect, and that ‘s should always and only be used to denote ownership (the contraction it’s notwithstanding). This is what I was always taught, and what was featured in all of my grammar books growing up. I feel that the ‘s “solution” was an innovation that unfortunately made its way into this or that grammar book and eventually become an “acceptable” — though incorrect — alternate.

    For the sake of consistency — and so clarity is not sacrificed — one should pluralize letters of the alphabet as if always talking about grades awarded in school: with a capital letter followed by a miniscule S. For example: As, Bs, Cs, Ds, etc. This could be done in written and typed texts without having to rely on italics and different fonts.

    Likewise with the example you provided of SOS: One could use SOSs or SOSes without any fear of being nebulous — never using SOS’s.

    The only way I could see using a letter or a number with an ‘s is to denote ownership of that letter or number. This is what I was repeatedly taught as THE correct way What do I mean by a letter’s or number’s ownership? Let us use examples in reference to handwriting:

    The Q’s tail was smudged.

    The 6’s loop was so small as to appear closed.

    Or, in reference to crafts in which letters or numbers were cut out of paper or other material:

    The 8’s bottom loop was torn.

    • You have strong opinions, but the fact is, many reputable authorities specifically contradict your views. We cited two of them in our article, and could have cited several more. What scholar can you cite who agrees with you?

  5. Mildred R. says:

    Which is the plural of “bus”? I have always used “buses”; but my boss uses “busses”. Is this a matter of regions?

    I always follow your rules and I have your book.

  6. Betsy Burton says:

    What has happened to adverbs? It seems they are missing in books now. Or is it correct to say, for instance, “He drank deep.” Perhaps I am the one mixed up. I thought it would be, “He drank deeply.”

    • The dictionary does acknowledge the word deep as an adverb. Definitions include the following:
      to a great depth: deeply deep>
      far on: late deep into the night>
      far into or below the surface of something deep below the water’s surface>

  7. Jane R. says:

    Hi!

    This is something that I’ve been confused about for the longest time, and I was wondering if you could help me. (I don’t know if you have any articles on this subject and I apologize if you do.)

    So. “Each other’s.”

    If I was writing the sentence, “They kissed each other,” then it would be singular. But if I was writing the sentence, “They kissed each other’s faces,” would it be:

    “They kissed each other’s faces”

    or

    “They kissed each others’ faces”

    Because that^^ implies that it’s two people kissing, so thusly, plural possessive.

    If the second one is correct, would the same hold true for the phrase “one anothers'”? Or would it be “one another’s”?

    Sorry if this sounds confusing, and thank you in advance!

  8. Mareeda M says:

    Hi,

    Is it correct to write, “Petitioner, John Smith’s, Notice and Motion for Sanctions…”

    or

    “Petitioner’s, John Smith, Notice and Motion for Sanctions…”

    The second seems wrong to me, but I see this written in pleadings all the time.

    Are the commas needed if there is more than one petitioner/respondent involved in the case, but you are only referring to a single petitioner/respondent?

    Attorneys write this type of caption both ways, and it has become confusing to me.

    • Legal documents have their own set of rules. We recommend consulting either The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, published by the Harvard Law Review Association or the ALWD Citation Manual: A Professional System of Citation, prepared and published by the Association of Legal Writing Directors and Darby Dickerson.

  9. Angela says:

    Hello,
    I am having difficulty figuring out the correct use of an apostrophe in the situation of a proper name that is also meant to indicate more than one person. I have read through the apostrophe section, but I am still confused; in particular when the word “approve” changes from a verb to a noun. Will you please edit the following sentences? Note: Smith refers to the family named Smith (as in Mr. and Mrs.).

    Have the Smith’s approved the floor plans?
    Have the Smiths approved the floor plans?

    Have we received the Smith’s approval?
    Have we received the Smiths approval?

    We have the Smith’s approval.
    We have the Smiths approval.

    The Smith’s have given their approval.
    The Smiths have given their approval.

    Much appreciated,
    Angela

    • A simple plural of a name does not require an apostrophe. A plural possessive uses s’.
      Have the Smiths approved the floor plans?
      Have we received the Smiths’ approval?
      We have the Smiths’ approval.
      The Smiths have given their approval.

  10. Lucy says:

    Is there a particular guide best to follow for awards or official documents? CMOS or AP? We are a small business that manufactures awards for people who receive patents and we deal with many different names and titles. We have been following the AP guide but it has been suggested to us that the CMOS might be more accurate and up to date for our industry.

    Thanks in advance for your help,
    Lucy

    • Both guides are valuable. AP Stylebook focuses on news writing, therefore it tends to be briefer and use simpler punctuation. CMOS is more comprehensive. It has 1,026 pages, however, the online version is simple to use. Since you are not journalists, you might want to consider using CMOS.

  11. Jean says:

    I have a question regarding capitalisation.

    Sentence 1:
    I would like to see the patient in the Respiratory New Patient Clinic.

    Sentence 2:
    I would like to see the patient in the New Patient Respiratory Clinic.

    Are both sentences correct with regard to capitlisation?

    • Capitalize the words that are part of the official name of the business.
      Sentence 1: the Respiratory New Patient Clinic must be the way the business is listed legally.
      Sentence 2: The title is a bit different from Sentence 1. If the Patient Respiratory Clinic is a new business, it would be the new Patient Respiratory Clinic.

      • Jean says:

        Capitalize the words that are part of the official name of the business.
        Sentence 1: the Respiratory New Patient Clinic must be the way the business is listed legally.
        – It is not a business name. It is a respiratory clinic for new patients.
        Sentence 2: The title is a bit different from Sentence 1. If the Patient Respiratory Clinic is a new business, it would be the new Patient Respiratory Clinic.
        business is listed legally.
        – It is not a business name. It is still a respiratory clinic for new patients (not a new clinic) stated in a different way.

        Thanks for your reply!

      • Jean says:

        Which one is correct and why?

        I was told that Mr Han’s Orthopaedic Surgeon, Mr Mike was on holiday.
        vs
        I was told that Mr Han’s orthopaedic surgeon, Mr Mike was on holiday.

        I want to return him back to his orthopaedic surgeon, Mr Mike.
        vs
        I want to return him back to his Orthopaedic Surgeon, Mr Mike.

        THANKS!

        • Our posts Capitalization of Job Titles and When to Capitalize People’s Titles explain the rules for capitalization of titles. When the appears in front of the job title, do not capitalize. The same rule would apply to titles in the possessive form (“his”). Regarding the comma, our post Commas with Appositives says, “When the noun preceding the appositive provides sufficient identification on its own, use commas around the appositive.” Since Mr. Han is not likely to have more than one orthopaedic surgeon (who we are assuming must be an M.D. with the last name “Mike”), the correct sentences are:
          I was told that Mr. Han’s orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Mike, was on holiday.
          I want to return him to his orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Mike.

  12. Wesley H. says:

    I came across this email address while scouring the internet for punctuation assistance while writing a report. I hope you will be able to help with my question.

    Name of hospital: St. Mark’s Hospital – In the report, we refer to the hospital as St. Mark’s, effectively making the name of the hospital “St. Mark’s.”
    Use in a sentence: Facility personnel indicated St. Mark’s reputation in the area…..
    Question: Other than rearranging the sentence, what is the correct way to write this?

    My thought process: The name of the hospital is not St. Marks, therefore St. Marks’ reputation is incorrect. Based on punctuation rules alone, St. Mark’s’ reputation makes sense, but I’ve never seen it written this way. So, I’d assume this is incorrect as well.

    Thanks for any help you could provide,

    • If you cannot reword the sentence, then your sentence “Facility personnel indicated St. Mark’s reputation in the area …” will have to do.

      There are several options for rewording if you can, such as: the hospital’s reputation, St. Mark’s Hospital’s reputation, our reputation, the reputation of St. Mark’s, etc.

  13. Doreen H. says:

    My sons’ birthdays are the same day – February 20th. They were born 4 years apart. When I write an invitation, do I write Tommy’s and Andy’s Birthday or Tommy and Andy’s Birthday.

    Thanks for your help!

    • This is tricky. The month and the day—which is all that most people give as their birthday—is the same. More important, this is for an invitation to one and the same party. We’d recommend “Tommy and Andy’s.”

  14. Samantha says:

    I apologize that this question doesn’t precisely fit within this subject, but I couldn’t find an ideal spot for it.

    The term “statute of limitations” is typically used in a sentence like this: “The statute of limitations for a first-degree misdemeanor is two years.” Is that the proper use of the term, or is that the plural form?

    It seems as though the proper use of the term is dependent on what precisely is being discussed. For example, a single statute containing a single time limitation could be called a “statute of limitation,” but should a single statute containing multiple time limitations be called a “statute of limitations” as the term is typically used? And what about multiple statutes containing multiple time limitations? Are those called “statutes of limitations”?

    And what if you’re referencing the two-year period for first-degree misdemeanors? Is that a “limitation period” or a “limitations period”?

    I apologize for the barrage of questions, but my co-workers and I (all attorneys) were discussing it and are very interested in finding out the answer. Although this is a common term in our profession, it seems as though none of us were ever taught how to use it properly. Thanks for any help you can provide!

    • Legal language is a world of its own, thus we suggest you consult a legal style manual. However, we can tell you that the term statute of limitations is singular in form. The sentence “The statute of limitations for a first-degree misdemeanor is two years,” is grammatically correct. And multiple statutes each containing one or more time limitations are called “statutes of limitations.”

  15. Mikey G says:

    So, in all of the examples below, do I italicize the core word (as I’ve done) but not the apostrophe + “s” ending?
    …an excessive number of had’s, has’s, his’s, is’s, whereas’s, yes’s, good-bye’s, thank-you’s, I love you’s, How do you do?’s, ahem‘s, and do’s and don’ts
    (NOTE: In the “do’s and don’ts” example above, I did not italicize the word “and,” because it is not being referred to as a word as word. Only the do’s/don’ts are. Is this correct as well?)
    Is it:
    For the Glory of the Realms’s …
    Or should it be:
    For the Glory of the Realmses

    And there has to be a way to punctuate the possessive of title in quote marks. For example, song titles go inside quotes. No recasts, please.
    So:
    …“Do You Want to Know a Secret?”’s popularity…
    …“Let It Be”’s orchestral melody…
    …“Help!”’s lyrics…
    Technically (again, without recasting), the three examples above must be correct, especially with the “thin” space before the possessive single apostrophe.

    • You appear to be referring to simple plurals, which need no apostrophe. Add an s to form the plural of most nouns; add es to form the plural of nouns ending in s:
      …an excessive number of hads, hases, hises, ises, whereases, yeses, good-byes, thank-yous, etc.
      Alternatively, you may also write … an excessive number of “hads,” “hases,” … “good-byes,” etc.
      Assuming that you are referring to the glory of more than one realm, then For the glory of the realms would be correct.
      We can find no guidance regarding possessives of song titles. While song titles would normally be contained within quotation marks, writing something like “Let It Be” ‘s … is confusing. In such a case Let It Be’s … may be acceptable. Even though you don’t want to recast it, the orchestral melody of “Let It Be” would be easier to read.

  16. Mike says:

    Confused.

    You said above (at the very top):

    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.

    • It’s a matter of context. In a list of such words with the base word in italics and the s or es not italicized the meaning is clear. The terms ises and wases on their own could be confusing.

  17. M G says:

    In his new 2019 book Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer pluralizes words as words, like this: “very”s, “probably”s, “he”s, “she”s, etc.—quotes around the core word, all in roman type.
    Following that pattern, how would you pluralize one-syllable words, ending in a “z” sound? Would you go with:

    Set 1
    “as”s
    “his”s
    “is”s
    “which”s
    “whereas”s
    “yes”s and “no”s
    “do”s and “don’t”s

    or

    Set 2
    “as”es
    “his”es
    “is”es
    “which”es
    “whereas”es
    “yes”es and “no”s

    Just your gut instinct here.

    Thank you!

    • Apparently Mr. Dreyer created a convention that works for him in what appears to be a context of addressing the plurals of words as words in lists. If we were forced to use Mr. Dreyer’s method, we would go with set 1 because the quotation marks adequately set each word apart, making it apparent that the s that follows indicates a plural. (That being said, we still prefer the methods contained in our response of February 27, 2018.)

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