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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Down and out punctuation: the apostrophe

A friend shared this photo in twitter yesterday. Of course, the main issue is the furor over Waterstone's dropping the apostrophe from their name. For the record, I have no problem with their decision. But the dejected apostrophe has issues of overuse in other areas. Note that the sign lists two uses: contractions and possession. It does not list plurals.

Technical presenters often mess up acronyms. It is common to find sentences such as "SA's are now included in the product" or "New signs were put on all the ATM's." Apostrophes are for possession, and the SA and ATM in the sentences above are not possessing anything. The appropriate usage is "SAs" and "ATMs."

Detail below: skip if you get it already.

I found two web references that discuss the plural issue in detail. The articles are long, so I've included just the relevant portions. The key to both of these references is that an acronym is treated as a word and is made plural by adding an "s" to it. There are a few exceptions, but they are rare.

From the Guide to Grammar and Writing: When an abbreviation can be used to refer to a singular thing — a run batted in, a meal ready-to-eat, a prisoner of war — it's surely a good idea to form the plural by adding "s" to the abbreviation: RBIs, MREs, POWs.

Notice, furthermore, that we do not use an apostrophe to create plurals in the following:
  • The 1890s in Europe are widely regarded as years of social decadence.
  • I have prepared 1099s for the entire staff.
  • Rosa and her brother have identical IQs, and they both have PhDs from Harvard.
  • SAs will be supported in the next product release.

You can also use Wikipedia's Acronym page. Be warned that there is much more there than you'd think possible on such a small topic.

I have posted two grammar graphics recently. They seem to work, so please send me more when you find them. The images make the blog more fun and gives me clear topics.

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