I like to spend time on Twitter. It’s a relatively new phenomenon for me – very new, in fact. However, there’s one thing about it I don’t like.
Forums on English Usage
Let’s say you find an interesting post on Twitter. You read it. Then you notice another interesting and related post, so you read that too. And, if you’re an editor and proofreader like me, you end up following some obscure link to some even more obscure forum, which sucks you in to reading and gawping at mass opinions on the correct placement of modern punctuation.
Mostly, it’s fine. However, I am realising that this is where the real enemies of good grammar and spelling reside. In between the knowledgeable and informative posts of the grammarati are some more spurious posts, masquerading as fact and booming arrogantly about their ‘good practice’.
Use of apostrophes to pluralise acronyms and abbreviations
Just the other day I found a thread debating the correctness of using apostrophes to add clarity to pluralised acronyms and abbreviations. The example being hotly discussed was CDs.
This is a real sore point for many grammar aficionados. After all, apostrophes are generally used to mean one of two things: either they show possession, or they acknowledge missing letters. However, it’s becoming increasingly common to see apostrophes used to pluralise acronyms and abbreviations in general.
Surely, it’s the start of a slippery slope? If apostrophised plurals are ok in one setting, i.e. acronyms, why shouldn’t they be used to create plurals of other words too? Grammar is nothing if not consistent, and yet this particular usage seems anything but.
Apostrophes have a purpose: possession or contraction
There’s an argument that an apostrophe helps the eye to read the plural more easily when it’s used in an acronym. However, there’s no logical reason to use an apostrophe to do this, since it shows neither possession nor a contraction; in selecting which punctuation mark to use to ‘add clarity’, why did the world choose the mark that is most likely to confuse and bewilder the greatest possible number of people?
Apostrophes don’t make plurals – where’s the evidence?
I am not the only person who believes, firmly, that apostrophes don’t make plurals. The Publishing Training Centre’s Basic Proofreading course states clearly: “Look out for the rogue apostrophe that many people insist (incorrectly) on adding when making a plural of an abbreviation of capital letters” (2005: p21).
Butcher’s Copy-Editing also advises: “Avoid the use of an apostrophe in the plural: NCOs is better than NCO’s” (2006: p118).
The New York Times states here that pluralised abbreviations should only contain apostrophes when the abbreviation is marked by full stops, e.g. M.D.’s. It firmly advises that apostrophes should not be used “for plurals of abbreviations without periods, or for plurals formed from figures: TVs, PCs, DVDs; 1990s, 747s, size 7s.”
The evolution of language?
But I digress. It’s so easy to find examples of reputable style guides that recommend not using apostrophes to make plurals.
Back to our obscure forum where up pipes Spurious 1, who says that ‘obviously’ the apostrophe in CD’s is there to indicate the loss of the letters –isc from Disc.
Really Spurious 1? #derp
By that logic surely you would have to write C’D’s – to indicate the additional loss of the letters –ompact from Compact?
Spurious 1 laughs condescendingly: that, s/he says, would be plain “RIDICULOUS!”
[Cue self-congratulatory slaps and guffaws.]
Spurious 2 adds “This si [sic] how language evolves, man.”
Ahhhh. So that’s it. Sorry, I didn’t realise the proper use of apostrophes was stopping the progress of the 21st century: my apologies.
Since when did we start re-branding our own errors as the evolution of language? Surely, evolution, in its true form, is a slow metamorphosis: a gradual, incremental shift that is barely noticeable? This, by contrast, is an ugly mutation.
Spurious 3 chimes in: “I will continue to add an apostrophe [to acronyms] because I strive for excellence…”
Excellence in what? Being confusing and, according to many, wrong?
The whole apostrophe debate, in my opinion, is getting more and more out of hand.
The fact that so many people do it doesn’t make it right.
The only thing adding an apostrophe to pluralise acronyms does is confuse people. Every time it happens it hammers another nail into the coffin of proper apostrophe usage. This is why, more often than not, our TV advertisements feature in their small print: T’s and C’s apply. This is why British students state their qualifications as NVQ’s, GCSE’s or A-Level’s. This is why our roadside vans sell us their FLOWER’S, BURGER’S and HOT DOG’s. This is why one newsagent decided to market its ‘New’s and Mag’s’.
What did I tell you? It’s a slippery slope.
Put apostrophes in plurals and GUESS WHAT? It teaches people that, to pluralise words, you add an apostrophe.
An apostrophe apocalypse
One thing is blindingly obvious: we are in the midst of an apostrophe apocalypse. Unless we can agree a consistent, logical and foolproof rule for the use of apostrophes, how can we expect people to use them correctly?
Rant over. I’m off to buy some CDs. Yes, CDs.
About the author
Lisa Russell is a copywriter, editor and proofreader from Berkshire, England. She is the founder and owner of Eloquence Editorial, the editorial services with an emphasis on partnership working and exceptional output – follow her on Twitter @EloquenceEd