Friday, February 11, 2011

ALOTT5MA FRIDAY GRAMMAR RODEO:  As Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski explained, "This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous."

Or was it "a lotta in's, lotta out's, lotta what-have-you's"?  According to the first plausible hit on Google when I searched today's question:
We use an apostrophe to create plural forms in two limited situations: for pluralized letters of the alphabet and when we are trying to create the plural form of a word that refers to the word itself. Here we also should italicize this "word as word," but not the 's ending that belongs to it. Do not use the apostrophe+s to create the plural of acronyms (pronounceable abbreviations such as laser and IRA and URL) and other abbreviations. (A possible exception to this last rule is an acronym that ends in "S": "We filed four NOS's in that folder.")
  • Jeffrey got four A's on his last report card.
  • Towanda learned very quickly to mind her p's and q's.
  • You have fifteen and's in that last paragraph.
Some abbreviations have embedded plural forms, and there are often inconsistencies in creating the plurals of these words. The speed of an internal combustion engine is measured in "revolutions per minute" or rpm (lower case) and the efficiency of an automobile is reported in "miles per gallon" or mpg (no "-s" endings). On the other hand, baseball players love to accumulate "runs batted in," a statistic that is usually reported as RBIs (although it would not be terribly unusual to hear that someone got 100 RBI last year — and some baseball commentators will talk about "ribbies," too). Also, the U.S. military provides "meals ready to eat" and those rations are usually described as MREs (not MRE). 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.
Adds the Chicago Manual of Style as to the pluralization of RFP ("Request for Proposals"), "If you can stop thinking of the spelled-out meaning of the acronym and just treat the acronym itself as a word with its own meaning, you should be able to add that little s without fretting;" and (per another page) "Chicago style uses an apostrophe for the plural of lowercase single letters (x’s and o’s), but for little else . . . Of course, if you come across a plural that would be misunderstood without an apostrophe, you should use one: for instance, in A’s and B’s, the first term would be mistaken for “As” without an apostrophe, and the second term uses the apostrophe because it would look inconsistent to style them in different ways." Okay, that makes sense.

So is this sentence correct: "In the 1980s, I visited many BBSes"? And should I stop being pedantic about referring to Ryan Howard's 108 RBI in 2010 and just call them RBIs?

Poll Results:  The plural of RBI is: RBIs (65%), RBI (32%), RBI's (3%).


  1. Benner8:41 AM

    I agree with the Chicago manual on the use of s's (see what i did there?) for acronyms.  "RBI" can be a singular or plural noun, and so even in context, Ryan Howard's 108 Runs-Batted-In would make better sense to be pluralized as RBIs.  When you see it written, 108 RBI looks jarring and requires the reader to stop, figure out what the acronym is, and then move on.  It defeats the purpose of using an acronym in the first place.  

  2. isaac_spaceman9:00 AM

    I've tried to use the CMOS rule since I read it in the mid-90s (yep), but the problem is that most of the letters I try to pluralize -- principally the M's and the A's, since one is my baseball team and the other is a hated rival -- could be mistaken for "Ms." and "As."  I will politely ignore anybody who offers to add apostrophes to things like 1980s or MVPs, though. 

  3. Except M's and A's in that context are abbreviations of plurals from a specific context, not plurals of the singular.  You wouldn't refer to a single member of the Seattle baseball club as an M.  (The A's are a bit trickier, but that's only because the team is known as "the A's" much more than its original "Athletics.")

  4. What flips me from RBI to RBIs is that I'd never refer to multiple prisoners of war as POW. They're POWs.

  5. Adam C.10:24 AM

    No problem with Adam's logic on "RBIs."  That said, I also don't see any confusion from using "RBI" to refer to the plural - and indeed, it seems to me that that's the basic convention in most baseball publications, whether print or online.  (Of course, shouldn't we really be focusing on Runs Created?)

  6. Adam C.10:37 AM

    <span>No problem with Adam's logic on "RBIs."  That said, I also don't see any confusion from using "RBI" to refer to the plural. Indeed, it seems to me, purely anecdotally, that that's the basic convention in a number of well-perused baseball publications, whether print or online (though not The Worldwide Leader, which looks like it sticks to "RBIs" - maybe that's AP style guide stuff).  I think that in this case, it's a question of who your audience is.  General audience, use RBIs; seamhead audience, RBI is fine.</span>

    <span>Of course, shouldn't we really be focusing on Runs Created?</span>

  7. It's a toss-up as to which bit of unnecessary punctuation annoys me more: unnecessary apostrophes, or unnecessary quotation marks. 

    I agree that the apostrophe should only be used to make a plural in a situation where the word or sentence is rendered either incomprehensible or indistinguishable from another word with a different meaning.  I would even argue that in the first example about getting "four A's on his report card" that if you wrote it as "got four As on his report card," any reasonably literate person is going to know the word is not "as" because "as" makes no sense in the context of the sentence.

  8. The Other Kate11:10 AM

    Yes to using apostrophes to form plurals when it will clarify meaning: do's, yes's, no's, abc's, thank you's, and the Oakland A's. However, ifs, ands, buts, dont's, ABCs, DVDs, 1990s, RBIs, and ATMs (yes) are all as clear or clearer without the additional punctuation.

  9. isaac_spaceman11:30 AM

    Yes, but in Seattle we often call them the M's.  The apostrophe looks wrong, but its better than saying "Go Ms!"  I would appreciate a hard and fast rule here, but the best I can do is say that if they both look wrong, I'll take the one that is less confusing. 

  10. isaac_spaceman11:36 AM

    Here, I probably would say dos, yeses, nos, abcs, thank yous, ifs, ands, buts, don'ts, ABCs, DVDs, 1990s, and ATMs, but Oakland A's and RBI (both plural and singular).  I am utterly lost as to how I would say "[Team 1's] baserunner collided with [Team 2's] catcher," where the relevant teams are the A's and the M's.  Actually, I know that I would rework the sentence, but what I'm saying is that I have no idea how many apostrophes I'd use if that were the sentence I had to write.  "The A's' baserunner collided with the M's' catcher?"  That is a disaster of Mariner-like proportions. 

  11. I'm saying "the M's" is fine because baseball has adopted this as a traditional form of abbreviation for a few team nicknames -- the O's are the only other one, I think.  What I'm saying is that in all three cases, you're not pluralizing the A, M or O, but rather abbreviating Athletics, Mariners and Orioles.  

  12. The Pathetic Earthling11:45 AM

    What about the plural form of a word that is, as the noun, already possessive (e.g., McDonald's, Nathan's)?  Is it McDonald'ses?  Or McDonald's's?  

  13. Via the 1-21-11 rodeo, The Economist says: <span>"Try to avoid using Lloyd's (the insurance market) as a possessive; it poses an insoluble problem."</span>

  14. Paul Tabachneck11:58 AM

    I have to say, I enjoy the merits of arguing the proper way to write out that highly colloquial sentence.  As for TPE's question, why not just wipe out all McDonald's locations, or just leave one?  Problem solved, either way.

  15. Paul Tabachneck12:04 PM

    When we refer to a prisoner of war, we call him a POW (also, we call a run batted in an RBI).  When we refer to prisoners of war, therefore, there needs to be a plural signifier.  I support your logic, mainly because I feel that the root acronym is singular, not plural.

  16. Wikipedia says: <span>. If an original apostrophe, or apostrophe with s, occurs at the end, it is left by itself to do double duty: Our employees are better paid than McDonald’s employeesStandard & Poor’s indexes are widely usedthe 5uu’s first album (the fixed forms of McDonald’s and Standard & Poor’s already include possessive apostrophes; 5uu’s already has a non-possessive apostrophe before its final s). No noun or noun phrase ever includes two apostrophes at its end. </span>

  17. JS-Kit may have eaten my comment.  The Economist says "don't try it - it's insoluble"; whoevever edited Wiki last says let the apostrophe do double duty -- Because I study all of Standard's and Poor's indices, I am better paid than any of McDonald's employees.

    Related: what's the plural of McDonald's?

  18. Genevieve12:28 PM

    How do you refer to single members of teams whose names are already plural?  I don't think you say a Red Sock, a Heat, etc., but I don't know what you do say other than "a player for the Heat."

  19. Meghan12:46 PM

    I'll never give up RBI as the plural but I think that's because--rightly or wrongly--I think it makes me sound erudite.

    I just told one of my students yesterday that we never use an apostrophe to pluralize something.  While I'm clearly wrong, I'm not correcting myself to her.  I need her to reset her default to never so that she can learn the exceptions later.

  20. christy in nyc12:49 PM

    But TPE was asking about pluralizing them.

    In any context where it mattered if I got it right and/or sounded good, I'd say "McDonald's locations"  or something like that. If pressed to choose a plural for McDonald's itself, I'd say McDonald'ses is closest to correct but would probably actually just use McDonald's (no change) IRL and let it be wrong but simple.

  21. Oops.  I'd just leave it be: "I've been to five McDonald's this week."

  22. christy in nyc12:56 PM

    I lean toward avoiding non-possessive, non-contracting apostrophes wherever possible. So I'm with Chicago. Definitely no 's on acronyms or initialisms. Also numbers. I was born in the 1980s, not the 1980's.

    But the question of whether to even use an S at all on plural initialisms is interesting. Really, both sound fine to me for most of these examples. What I actually do in real life I can't say. It probably depends on the context.

  23. The Other Kate1:34 PM

    This raises a cool question about case, and maybe belongs in larger discussion of the peculiar grammar and punctuation of sports, with its strings of abbreviations and elastic vernacular of singulars and plurals. 

    Is the baseunner treated as the genetive-case form of a plural noun (in the of-generative and minus abbreviation, the baserunner of the Atheletics) or as a attributive noun, with the first noun (A's for Athletics) shifting to an adjective to modify the second noun (baserunner)? It's the difference between Derek Jeter being "Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter" or "the Yankees' shortstop, Derek Jeter."

  24. isaac_spaceman1:48 PM

    Fill in the blanks and punctuate the following sentence:  "Three teams announced a trade today involving the [Team 1's] Adam Jones, the [Team 2's] David Aardsma, and the [Team 3's] Kurt Suzuki."  Team 1 is the O's, Team 2 is the M's, and Team 3 is the A's. 

    And please don't be cute and say "I'd rewrite the sentence."  So would I, but we're trying something here.   

    This is an apostrophal nuclear bomb, if you ask me.

  25. The Other Kate2:06 PM

    Kobayshi Maru'ing us, Isaac? 

  26. I think it's the McDonald's rule from below; if you insist on structuring the sentence that way, then the apostrophe does double-duty.  O's, M's, A's.

  27. isaac_spaceman2:26 PM

    You can definitely say "former Mariner Edgar Martinez" or "Cardinal Albert Pujols."  People refer to Jeter as "a true Yankee," and grammar is not among the many reasons to punch those people.  The problem with the Boston and Chicago AL teams is twofold.  First, "Sox" is not a word, so it's not actually either plural or singular.  Trying to singularize it is just going to cause a problem.  Second, and more subtly, the name refers to things that the Boston and Chicago players wear, not things that they metaphorically or literally are.  "We play baseball like persons from America, or like young bears, or like persons who sail the sea" may not make much sense, but it makes some, and that's the way I read Yankees, Cubs, Mariners.  By contrast, the two Sox teams are saying "our players may be identified by the color of their hosiery," but you wouldn't leap to the conclusion that we are saying that those players actually are like the hosiery itself. 

    Caveat:  there is some historical precedent for referring to a player as a "Red Sock" or a "White Sock."  See, e.g., the Green Berets; the Brown Shirts.  There also is contrary precedent.  For example, we may refer to a particular law firm as a "white-shoe firm," but we don't refer to the lawyers there as "white shoes."  They're just assholes, that's all. 

  28. isaac_spaceman2:58 PM

    Nice of this comment to show up a few hours after I posted it, making me look like a jerk for posing the same hypothetical twice. 

  29. Meghan3:21 PM

    Unnecessary quotation marks annoy me more.  Apostrophes sometimes slip in.  They're annoying like gnats.  But quotation marks are all, "HEY!  Look at me!  I'm being used for emphasis inappropriately!"  So much harder to overlook.

  30. Robin4:12 PM

    The way I convinced the law review staff to pluralize letters of the alphabet with apostrophes was to show them a bag of M&M's.  But then I realized that might be appropriate only because they are intials for people.  But I think the ends justified the means.  Now if only there were a candy that uses an en dash in a range of numbers...

  31. christy in nyc4:56 PM

    I love n-dashes for ranges of numbers! Such an elegant, subtle little punctuation mark. Wow I am such a nerd. Help.

  32. Jenn C.6:53 PM

    How timely, today someone sent me an email saying "Friday's are still bad for me."  I thought she meant the restaurant chain.

  33. The Pathetic Earthling8:30 PM

    Reminds me of a restaurant that Adam and Jen found when they were out here for my wedding to Mrs Earthling -- a sort of six-restaurant chain french bistro renamed by Adam and thereafter known as 'TGI Frenchy's'

  34. A great blog of unnecessary quotation marks:

  35. I had to edit this sentence tonight:

    "Smith often ate with the Robertses’ two children."

    Another apostrophal mess. The above is right according to AP, but yeesh.

  36. Meghan8:12 AM

    Although I have been known to call them RsBI in casual conversation.