« Ouch! | Main | I’m back! »

April 08, 2006


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

You mean pages 172-3.
Yes I think it's ugly and sloppy too, and just plain wrong. The NYT style book is hardly a justification for anything. If anything at all it merely exemplifies the unthinking, "Stepford" mentality of some journalists. Style books of the newspaper kind are written as much for the benefit of editorial vanity as for clarity of communication. Anyway, since they wrote their own style book they can write in whatever inappropriate style they like if it makes them feel good.
What I do like about the article though is the grouping of SUVs with trucks because that's exactly what they are. It just doesn't sound so great when talking about the family "truck".

Foolish Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Don't trouble yourself with the little minds at the NYT.

Then again, they could be the authors of the Newspeak Dictionary version 1.

Bob the Angry Flower covers this well in Bob's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots.

Of all of the "elegant" ways out, he chose the worst. Even the Reader's Digest published an article praising the ever-changing forms and modes of the English language (never mind their regular Word Power section).

Properness is not a trend.

In Britain, we call this the "greengrocer's apostrophe", since it's often seen to grace many a handwritten sign outside a shop.

E.g., "Banana's halp price today!"

I'd expect a little more erudition from a reputable publication. A surprise best-seller in this country last year was a book by Lynne Truss called "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", which lays bare all manner of punctuational(?) solecisms.

I got Eats, Shoots & Leaves for Decemberween. Need to pick it back up.

Kudos for calling them on it. Improper usage of the apostrophe really ticks me off.

The rules of English are descriptive, not prescriptive. What is proper is what is done by the most people (perhaps the most influential people). Even so, I hate it when I see certain usages, like "to beg the question" to mean "to raise the question." That is used so much by the popular media that it will soon mean what they think it means.

I think the thing the NYT got wrong was using periods in the abbreviation SUV. I have found that making a plural out of an abbreviation or initialism can be hard. Does SUVs look OK? I suppose so. But the rules of English should never be applied in a way that makes it harder to understand what is meant.

Oh Orac, I know what you mean. It's one thing to misuse an apostrophe in a quickly typed comment, but, dammit, people get paid to frickin' do it right in publications. I'm constantly finding stuff like this in newspapers, magazines, and even books. It drives me nuts, because, although I have a Bachelor's (or is that Bachelors'?) degree - It's in drawing, and all the English I know I learned in high school or earlier. So, one would think that people whose jobs involve words would pay more attention to this kind of stuff.
A couple of pet peeves of mine are using "than" and "then" interchangeably and also "would of" for "would have".

OOPS! wrong blogger - Orac's is Respectful Insolence. Sorry about that, Skeptico.

The use of the apostrophe followed by "s" to indicate plurals for at least some letters/initials is standard and has been for many years. It is not an invention of anybody's recent style book. It's good to know two of the basic three uses for the apostrophe (possessives and contractions), but even better to know all three.

Example: It's always annoying when Steve's typewriter produces those smeared i's.

Without the apostrophe, we have "those smeared is," which is likely to be a mystery to the reader.

Skeptico replies to Julia:

Perhaps you are thinking of this (with my bold):

In the solitary case of single lower case letters, it is preferable to use an apostrophe to avoid confusion, as in 'mind your p's and q's'.

Except that it goes on to say:

Excepting the one case above, there is no need to use any apostrophe with plurals.

Other than the special case above, the apostrophe should not be used for plurals. Ever. Doing so is a NYT invention, simply because they sometimes use all caps in headlines.

Traditionally, the rule applied only to single letters that spell a word when "s" is added without the apostrophe: "as"/"a's" or "is"/"i's"

So the BBC source that you use has already extended the rule in giving approval to using the apostrophe to form the plural of "p" and "q." Your source says "there is no need"; this is much less strong than your own "should not." Indeed, your own chosen source goes on to say, "CD's may be used too, though this is not at all recommended. This applies to all other abbreviations like HGVs . . . ." Applied to the present case, your source appears to be saying, "[S.U.V.'s] may be used too, though this is not at all recommended" in British usage.

It is a style (rather than grammar) rule that consistency should be an overriding concern in public documents.
For whatever it's worth, I don't like "S.U.V's" either. However, after forty years of studying and teaching grammar and editing public documents, I can assure you that the New York Times is well within the requirements of American Standard English, and that it did not invent that usage.


But there is also:

Apostrophes are NEVER ever used to denote plurals!

And, The plurals of single capital letters, acronyms, and Arabic numerals (1,2,3,...) take an -s WITHOUT an apostrophe:

* Z (the capital letter Z)--Zs
* UPC (Universal Product Code)--UPCs
* ATM (Automatic Teller Machine)--ATMs
* GUI (Graphical User Interface)--GUIs
* 3 (the Arabic numeral 3)--3s

And, It is no longer considered necessary or even correct to create the plural of years or decades or abbreviations with an apostrophe:

* He wrote several novels during the 1930s.
* There are fifteen PhDs on our faculty.
* My sister and I have identical IQs.

And, Sir Ernest Gowers writing in "the complete plain words"(page 237), regarding plurals, states:

"It [the apostrophe] should not be used with contractions (e.g. M.P.s)..."

Not to mention every English teacher I ever had.

The problem here is the NYT insistence on using all caps headlines, and making a rule for that based on the RARE occasions they will need to use an all caps headline of something like the plural of SUV. Ridiculous. They really need to change their all caps headline policy – then they won’t need to write things like S.U.V.’s that means “belonging to the SUV”, when they meant something else.

You have offered three more authorities. Comments:

1. Again, this is a British source, which, interestingly enough, seems to contradict the BBC source you offered earlier. This suggests that in Britain also, the issue is complex.

2. Your second notation is from OWL of Perdue, a very useful source, especially for young college students. OWL has more pages on the apostrophe than you list. Here’s a quote from http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/print/grammar/g_apost.html”> one of them: “To form the plural of a lowercase letter, place 's after the letter. There is no need for apostrophes indicating a plural on capitalized letters, numbers, and symbols (though keep in mind that some editors, teachers, and professors still prefer them).” Again, the writer appears to be stating his/her judgment that there appears to be no actual need, perhaps as far as clarity, but acknowledges that the apostrophe is indeed sometimes used by people like editors; the reason some editors use it is style consistency.

3. Another excellent source. I often recommend both this site and the OWL site particularly to those trying to pass English 101 or a remedial course. The site, though, says a bit more than you mention. The page you refer to also has this note: “(If you wrote Ph.D. with periods, you would add an apostrophe before the pluralizing "s": Ph.D.'s) If the abbreviation or acronym ends in "S," it's a good idea to separate this final "S" from the pluralizing "s" with an apostrophe: SOS's.” So even this source agrees there are uses for the apostrophe in forming the plural of some acronyms. Again, the point is that for style consistency, some editors/stylebooks just smooth out the whole issue with the apostrophe for them all.

3. I don’t have handy a copy of the book by Sir Gowers, but it is another British source, is it not? You’ll do better to use the AP stylebook as an example; it directs its users not to include the apostrophe with such forms, as in “Do you know your ABCs?” This backs you up. Of course, it also directs its users not to put a comma before “and” in a series like “apples, oranges and bananas.” Some authorities find this objectionable; others accept it. One purpose of a style manual is to make the decisions for particular publications on controversial issues. Some manuals make consistency a very high priority; others not quite so high. These are judgment calls.

I don’t know what classes you took in which your teachers, if I am understanding you correctly, told you never, ever to use an apostrophe to construct a plural. It’s common and perhaps useful to tell high school students that simplification, and even college freshmen. The situations we are talking about are rarely discussed at levels lower than a college course devoted entirely to grammar and proofreading. (Certainly I’ve always included it when I taught such courses.)

I‘ve enjoyed our discussion, and it may be that we will simply need to agree to disagree. You are entirely within your right to declare your dislike of the apostrophe in pluralizing acronyms, and within your rights to demand that The New York Times leave those apostrophes out. But please don’t make your demand by declaring that such an apostrophe is simply “wrong.” The issue is much more complicated than that, and you are not likely to be successful by over-simplifying the situation.

I apologize for the second "3"; I'm afraid my eyesight is not very good any more. Still, I should have caught that and erased it.

Good work, Julia. That's how I always learned it (and taught it), too. I think the apostrophe in this case is dying out slowly, but it's still just as correct to use one in abbreviations as to not.

Good on Skeptico for knowing the difference between its and it's, but there is more to apostrophes than that.

Personally I find the use of apostrophes with capitalized abbreviations pretty ghastly, not least because it is unnecessary and does not disambiguate. FWIW, the Oxford Guide to Style is very explicit about not using apostrophes for plurals - and that authority brooks no exceptions (like me!).

That having been said, this is actually a relatively modern* confection: World Wide Words, a source I strongly recommend, cites the title of 'a work of 1669 by the German Jesuit Athansius Kircher ... entitled The Vulcano’s or Burning and Fire-vomiting Mountains, Famous in the World: with their Remarkables' - with the observation that 'the apostrophe in 'volcano’s' would give modern copy editors a momentary spasm, but it was common then, because the word seemed foreign and odd.'

*Admittedly, given that my citation is from the seventeenth century I'm using a rather liberal interpretation of the word 'modern' here...

If we're using 17th century as modern, then standardized spelling is modern, too.

Here I come to save the day by closing a tag or two.

Sometime I need to get to work on a humorous thing I was thinking of doing relating to this. Anyone know a good, cheap/free video editor?

BronzeDog, I don't know about the video editor, but I've always thought apostrophes were amusing. Good luck on the "humorous thing" "relating to this."

BTW, one of my students some years ago tried to work his way out of the plural-apostrophe problem by writing a sentence similar to this: "It's always annoying when Steve's typewriter produces a smeared i, and then another one and another one and another one."

I don't get your student's sentence, Julia. I mean, I understand it, but how does it work his way out of the problem?

Anyway, check these sites: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/acronyms.html


I guess Julia's student was worried about Steve's typewrites producing a string of smeared is...


Yes, some of those references were “British”. What is wrong with that? The language is called “English”.


Sorry to take so long to answer; I hadn't noticed your question until today.

Languages change constantly. When some speakers of a language become separated from other users, the language will change differently in the two groups. There are now numerous differences in British English, American English, and Australian English. British English remains the standard for much of the world, including the Far East, but American English is probably dominant on the internet.

There are differences in vocabulary: "hood" of a car vs. "bonnet" of a car

There are differences in spelling: "honor" vs. "honour"

There are differences in grammar: "The government is" vs. "The government are"

There are differences in punctuation: "SUV's" (a possible, though certainly not universal, American use) vs. "SUVs" (a very widespread British use).

Here is a fun crossword puzzle to test your knowledge of some basic American vs. British vocabulary.

And here is a British university source discussing some of the more obvious differences.

The relevance to the original discussion is that the apostrophe you objected to (which, I remind you, I also personally dislike) appeared in the New York Times, not the London Times. The American publication would no more consider itself bound by the predominate British form than the British publication would be impressed by American forms.

Hewing to the schoolmarms is hardly critical thinking. What's needed in this case is a more sensible convention, which in time, if useful, will become a rule. The simplest solution is to drop the periods. SUVs works better typographically than S.U.V.s.

There's American, British and Australian English. Don't forget that we Canucks also have our own version, which is a cross between British and American.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search site