Do’s and Don’ts for Apostrophes

Did today’s heading look odd to you? I put an apostrophe into do’s, which isn’t possessive. My reason is that apostrophes (contrary to what your teachers might have told you) are sometimes used for plurals: Mind your p’s and q’s. Your 4’s sometimes look like 9’s. I moved to Florida in the 1970’s. And you probably heard your mother say “If if’s and but’s were candy and nuts….” (Mine did!)

Suppose you wrote a note to a co-worker saying, “I have trouble reading your handwriting because sometimes you forget to dot your is.” You meant that your co-worker forgets the dot on the “i.” But it looks like you wrote the word is.

So you’d use an apostrophe, like this:

I have trouble reading your handwriting because sometimes you forget to dot your i’s.  CORRECT

Here are a few more examples:

I’m revising my essay because I used too many and’s. CORRECT

My computer keyboard sticks when I try to type 2’s and 9’s. CORRECT

Gail earned straight A’s in college. CORRECT

Is everybody clear that I’m NOT giving you permission to write Smith’s when you mean the whole Smith family? They’re the Smiths.

The Smiths sent us a postcard from Hawaii. CORRECT

Let’s go back to do’s and don’ts. There have been heated arguments about the apostrophe in do’s. If you’re trying to be consistent, you’ll also insert it into don’ts, and then you have this odd construction: do’s and don’t’s. But if you omit the apostrophe, the result is just as odd: dos and don’ts. How do you settle this?

The answer is that you do whatever works for you (or, if you’re writing professionally, whatever your organization’s style guide tells you to do). Rules are guidelines. They’re supposed to facilitate writing and reading, not get in the way. I like do’s and don’ts, and that’s what I use.

(I just did some research and learned that the Macmillan Dictionary uses the apostrophe in do’s, but the Oxford Manual of Style omits it.)

Earlier you might have noticed that I inserted an apostrophe into 1970’s (“I moved to Florida in the 1970’s”). That apostrophe is gradually disappearing – some style guides still use it, while others don’t.

I can hear someone out there moaning that the sky is falling, and there are no rules anymore, and….

Guess what: language rules have always been in flux. Do some research about punctuation rules from three or four centuries ago: you’ll probably have a coronary when you see how much they’ve changed! It’s like traffic laws. We need to know the rules that apply here and now. (In Florida you can make a right turn at a red light – but don’t try that in Manhattan!)

candy and nuts


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