Difficult apostrophes: six do’s and don’ts

apostropheApostrophes are unpredictable little blighters. No sooner have you mastered the basics than they pop up in new and unexpected places, apparently breaking all the rules.

Should they, for example, be involved when you “cross the i’s and dot the t’s”? How about in the Ts &Cs? What are the, ahem, do’s and don’ts?

Don’t know? Don’t despair. Below we’ll strip away the guesswork from six of the most common apostrophe dilemmas, leaving you clear on whether to invite the curly little fellows in or boot them out.

1. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s: DO

Many people doubt whether they should use apostrophes in “crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s”, because the i and t in question are plurals, rather than contractions or possessives – and we all know not to use apostrophes to indicate plurals.

But the problem is that if you omit the apostrophes and write “dotting the is and crossing the ts”, your reader may stumble over the “is”, confusing it with … is.

One alternative might be to capitalise the I and the T – “dotting the Is and crossing the Ts”. But that’s not quite right either, because a capital I doesn’t need dotting, nor a capital T crossing (not in the original handwritten sense, anyway).

So, “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s” it is – it may not be pretty, but it’s clear and there’s no risk of confusing your reader.

2. Ts & Cs: DON’T

When you can capitalise the initials, they become much easier to deal with. Ts & Cs, or Ts and Cs if you prefer, is perfectly readable. Using apostrophes (T’s & C’s) just adds unnecessary clutter. So in this case, you’re better off without. The same goes for Ps & Qs.

3. 1980s: DON’T

Particularly in the US, it used to be quite common to use an apostrophe to indicate numerical plurals, such as “1980’s”. These days, however, most style guides on both sides of the Atlantic recommend using no apostrophe.

4. Do’s and don’ts: DO and DON’T

This one can have grown men and women groaning. But the secret, again, is simply to be pragmatic: do what makes it most readable (putting the reader’s needs first).

“Dos” just asks to be pronounced incorrectly, so it clearly needs an apostrophe – do’s. But if we’re adding an apostrophe there, should we also add an extra one to don’ts – don’t’s? Well, no, because that just looks crazy.

So, add an apostrophe to the former and make do with the existing apostrophe in the latter. It’s not perfect, but your reader will thank you for keeping it simple.

5. Cc’ing and Bcc’ing: DO (if you must)

There are two trends at play here. The first is towards sentence-cased “initialisms”, where only the first letter is capitalised. The second is our natural instinct to take new words and apply grammatical rules to them. So not only do we now want to Cc things, we also want to see who is Cc’ing them and check who has Cc’d them, and so on.

Ccing and Ccd aren’t very readable, and neither are Bccing and Bccd. Hyphens make even clunkier constructions than apostrophes (Cc-ing and Bcc-d, anyone?). So use an apostrophe … if you must.

Or, even better, avoid writing constructions like these and rephrase. For example: instead of “Are you Bcc’ing that to me?” write “Can you Bcc that to me?”, and instead of “I’ve Cc’d you” write “I’ve copied you in”.

6. Pdf’ing: DO (if you must)

As with point 5 above, this is another growing trend. It used to be standard practice to capitalise initialisations such as PDF, but increasingly we are seeing some well-known ones written in lower case – pdf, for example. Even LOL is now often written “lol”.

In cases such as these, try to rephrase sentences to avoid having to conjugate the initialism. So instead of “I’m pdf’ing it”, write “I’m making a pdf of it”, for example.

But if that isn’t possible, use an apostrophe. “Pdf’ing” may not be elegant, but it’s at least easier to read than “pdfing” and easier on the eye than “pdf-ing”.

Why does being easy to read matter so much?

So why does all this matter? Well, when your reader stumbles, they have to shift their attention from your message to your writing to get back on track. And as soon as they do that, you risk losing them – and you don’t know whether it’ll be for a few seconds or forever.

In situations such as these, pragmatism is key. You want to make the reading experience as smooth as possible so the reader focuses on the topic, not the words – even if that means putting an apostrophe somewhere that you usually wouldn’t.

Where apostrophes are concerned, our motto is: use them if to leave them out would be confusing.

To find out more about reader-centred writing and delivering your message effectively, sign up for one of our wide range of business-writing courses – we can either come to your company or you can join a group session for individuals in central London.

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