Pluralisation of acronyms and abbrevations?
November 20, 2005 4:00 PM   Subscribe

How does one correctly pluralise an acronym or an abbreviation? How does one specify an acronym's ownership? How should one go about specifying the ownership of a collection of acronyms?

Is compact discs shortened to CDs or CD's? Is compact disc's shortened to CD's? Is compact discs' shortened to CDs'?

I've been debating this with friends and while opinions would certainly be appreciated, definitive sources would be perfect! Thankyou MeFites!
posted by PuGZ to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do you mean ownership as in I own the IP rights for such and such acronym, or do you mean ownership in the sense of grammar?
posted by tiamat at 4:06 PM on November 20, 2005

Exactly the same way you would with words:
CDs, DVDs for plurals
"The CD's surface was scratched" for possessive
The DVDs' playback was rubbish for pl. pos.

This is language. Your definitive resource is my badly misguided second-rate style book.
posted by bonaldi at 4:08 PM on November 20, 2005

Technically, the plural of CD should be CDs, since CD's implies a posessive or a contraction. However, so many people use CD's to mean CDs that it's hard to call it 'wrong.' Still, as you point out with your example of "compact dics'" (which would, as you said, become "CDs'"), the reason to do it the right way is to avoid the ambiguity of meaning that happens when it's done the wrong way.
posted by bingo at 4:11 PM on November 20, 2005

It seems to be like bonaldi says for many (most?) people. But note that, as it just showed up on MetaChat, apparently the folks at the New York Times believe that the plural of CD is CD's, rather than CDs.

Go figure. I don't really care much either way.
posted by teece at 4:13 PM on November 20, 2005

My personal preference is the following:

Compact Disc = CD
Compact Discs = CDs
Compact Disc's = CD's
Compact Discs' = CDs'

but I have no idea to what extent that is considered standard style. I checked three grammar books: each of them had slightly different recommendations, and each of them noted that there was no definite rule. They stressed that in cases in which readability would be helped by an apostrophe, an apostrophe ought to be used. This site says not to use an apostrophe to pluralize acronyms and abbreviations.

Note that in baseball circles, there is some debate whether Runs Batted In should be abbreviated RBI or RBIs. I understand the logic behind the former, but I think the latter is clearer and sounds more natural.
posted by jdroth at 4:21 PM on November 20, 2005

I mean ownership in a grammatical sense.

For the record, I do it as bonaldi says, but "CD's" as a plural is so common in both print and on the Internet that it has become acceptable.

Some of the links in that MetaChat article are very useful, thanks!

I blame it on l33tsp34k.
posted by PuGZ at 4:21 PM on November 20, 2005

Yeah. I can vouch that the NYT Manual of Style and Usage tells you that CD's is okay. Wait, here's the excerpt (yes, I do have the book in front of me):
"Use apostrophes in the plurals of abbreviations and in plurals formed from letters and figures: M.D.'s; C.P.A.'s; TV's; VCR's; p's and q's; 747's; size 7's. (Many publications omit such apostrophes, but they are needed to make The Times's all-cap headlines intelligible and are therefore used throughout the paper for consistency.)"
Please be aware that this is what the Times uses. It's not common otherwise. You would make me, and most other grammar mavens, very happy if you wrote "the CDs I bought are good," "the CD's reverse was scratched," and "the CDs' cases were cracked." Please.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:22 PM on November 20, 2005

I've been around the bend on this one and the bottom line is: possessiveness on acronyms and initialisms can be indicated with an apostrophe but I find it's easier to not use them in order to avoid armchair editors pointing out the rule that superficially countermands it. My suggestion is: TLAs. The change of case seems to be enough to indicate usage.
posted by Mr T at 4:52 PM on November 20, 2005

Another English major, writer, and proofreader here to say: ignore the Times' special case. The best style is to keep the rule consistent from full word to abbreviation. jdroth's guide is the one I would prefer. I would change copy that read "CD's" where a simple plural abbreviation of "compact discs" is intended.
posted by Miko at 4:54 PM on November 20, 2005

sorry for the forty-seven word sentence.
posted by Mr T at 4:56 PM on November 20, 2005

The MetaChat discussion is silly, and so is anyone who claims there's a "definitive answer" to questions like this. This is a classic example (another is the serial comma) of an issue that can be settled only with reference to a particular style guide; if you're editing text for a publication that uses Chicago, you follow their rule 7.15:
Letters, abbreviations, and numerals. Capital letters used as words, abbreviations that contain no interior periods, and numerals used as nouns form the plural by adding s.
(A couple of their examples are IRAs, URLs.) If, on the other hand, the publication follows Times style, you'll use apostrophes with such plurals. It's not a moral issue, and I frankly can't understand anyone getting hot under the collar about it.
posted by languagehat at 5:08 PM on November 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

I agree there's never a definitive answer, but I also think that convention itself is a good style guide. Apostrophe use seems to confound far too many Americans, and I hate to see the waters muddied by creating exceptions for acronyms. To avoid confusion with the possessive case, avoid the apostrophe when all you want to do is indicate the plural.
posted by Miko at 5:14 PM on November 20, 2005

I get upset about it.

I teach writing to elementary school students, who are truly bewildered by the use of apostrophes. Sure, I can teach them the rule, but it's what they see, in the paper, in advertising, on the web, that really matters. Fully 30% of my students simply always use an apostrophe before any final s, because it 'looks right' to them.

The previous writers have it correct- the NYT is off on its own, but IMHO, serves as a terrible example that just perpetuates our general confusion over what should be a fairly simple distinction.
posted by carterk at 5:15 PM on November 20, 2005

Some good advice here, two-thirds down the page, under Plurals and Apostrophes. Note that embedded plurals, like rpm and mpg, don't require an s.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:24 PM on November 20, 2005

It's not a moral issue, and I frankly can't understand anyone getting hot under the collar about it.

It's not a moral issue, but it's worth at least attempting to be correct in your usage. I similarly wince at people that neglect the usage of ubiquitous spell-checkers when making posts to this and other boards. The frequent use of "I used my PIN number on the ATM machine" is another one that just ticks me off.
posted by thanotopsis at 6:42 PM on November 20, 2005

The frequent use of "I used my PIN number on the ATM machine" is another one that just ticks me off.

Sorry, why?
posted by Miko at 7:19 PM on November 20, 2005

ATMs = Automated Teller Machines

ATM machines = Automated Teller Machine Machines
posted by VulcanMike at 7:29 PM on November 20, 2005

PINs = Personal Identification Numbers

PIN numbers = Personal Identification Number Numbers
posted by VulcanMike at 7:30 PM on November 20, 2005

Mike: redundancy. The N in PIN already stands for number. The M in ATM stands for machine.
posted by acoutu at 7:31 PM on November 20, 2005

Miko. Sorry.
posted by acoutu at 7:31 PM on November 20, 2005

Oh, OK -- like "SALT Talks". I thought you were aiming at something having to do with pronouncing them as words.
posted by Miko at 7:45 PM on November 20, 2005

It's much more important to be understood, than to be correct. Try to keep in mind that being correct is primarily in service of being understood. Language doesn't exist for language pedants.

Informally, I see nothing wrong with "PIN number" or even "CD's" (although I do prefer omitting the apostrophe there myself, because it looks cleaner). There's a side effect of encouraging the greengrocer's apostrophe ("melon's for sale"), a small drawback considering the weight of usage.
posted by dhartung at 7:46 PM on November 20, 2005

The Time's style is based on their wanting acronyms to not look odd in their all-caps headlines, and to be consistent elsewhere. They don't argue that it's gramatically correct.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:18 PM on November 20, 2005

So often, being understood and being correct are the same. In fact, my major defense of prescriptive grammar conventions is that they are the most easily understood by the greatest number of literate people. Unconventional grammar and spelling slow down and often impede the processing of the message itself.

Most literate people will read "CD's" as possessive, as if a property of the CD is about to be described: "That CD's cover is ugly." To write as though apostrophe-s is not the default possessive is to make work for yourself and your reader.
posted by Miko at 8:28 PM on November 20, 2005

Google gives very mixed results. Some argue that the proper (and traditional) form is to make acronyms plural without an apostrophe others argue the point backwards. The NYT is not off on its own on this, I believe the very popular book "Eats, Shoot and Leaves" argued for using the apostrophe in plural acronyms. (I lent out my copy so I can't verify my memory.)

I prefer to add the apostrophe. I own many CD's. To my mind this is preferable as it stays consistent with the way in which we refer to groups of letter and numbers. We say "7's look like 2's" and "You don't see many capital Z's". (The latter use is undoubtedly correct, how else would you tell "is" from many i's?)

Whenever I happen to be referring to something possessed by the bearer of the acronym I trust context will help my readers sort things out fairly easily.
posted by oddman at 8:42 PM on November 20, 2005

We say "7's look like 2's" and "You don't see many capital Z's".

!? No we don't. Standard usage would be "7s look like 2s." "You don't see many capital Zs."

how else would you tell "is" from many i's?

posted by Miko at 9:21 PM on November 20, 2005

Most literate people will read "CD's" as possessive

I disagree, Miko. The apostrophe is an apocryphal mistake any way, even in its "correct" use as a possessive*.

If the possessive and plural share the exact same ending (-s or -es or 's) it is still possible to disambiguate. Ambiguity is at the heart of human language, we're adept at figuring things out from context.

Here, it is all style. Neither one really matters to me at all, and I doubt it gives people a millisecond of pause either way. At most, it annoys some people (which may be a valid consideration, if that someone is your boss or teacher), but it doesn't hinder communication.

(*) The apostrophe in English for a possesive is a mistake. In Middle English, the genitive was an -es ending, which had no stress. It was thus often pronounced as a -is or -ys. Since the initial 'h' was often silent in Middle English, the -is or -ys is pronounced the same as 'his.' Thus, writers got confused, and thought a genitive was formed by saying 'his' after the noun. Thus, the apostrophe to contract "stone his" to "stone's." But that's an error -- it was actually "stones," which was just pronounced the same as "stone his." /trivia.

posted by teece at 9:28 PM on November 20, 2005

Still, the convention of apostrophe has been around for a long time since the days of Middle English. Whenever possible, in publication, I prefer to stick with the more common, standard, orthodox usage in order to distract as few people as possible. Not only does favoring a less standard method annoy some people, it gives them a reason to write off your opinion (or sales effort, or application, or term paper, or love letter) as the slatherings of an ignoramus. Why give them the chance?

About the 7s and 2s: I just consulted my copy of this and learned that "7's and 2's", and "i's", for that matter, were accepted as standard until about the 70s. In recent decades, the apostrophe has more commonly been dropped; tastes changed to prefer the simple plural. That would explain why in my lifetime, I've never worked anywhere where "7's" and "i's" would be preferred style. It did suprise me; I hadn't realized there was a precedent.

Anyway. *shrug* is right. The old prescriptive vs. descriptive. Normally I'd go on my class issues/grammar-as-shibboleth soapbox, but I'm too tired. Time to catch some Z's. *shudder* Zs.
posted by Miko at 9:43 PM on November 20, 2005

Um, actually Miko on the Google search I did, using apostrophes to designate groups of letters and numbers was one thing many of the authorities agreed on.

1, 2, 3, etc. From the last link, "Plural numbers, letters, and abbreviations also take apostrophes, as in Ph.D.'s, p's and q's, and 1800's, but this usage is becoming less frequent. Many people now simply write 1800s or CODs, and that's considered fine."

While, you will also find sources that argue for no apostrophy in designating multiple letters, you simply cannot deny they they are used for that purpose.
posted by oddman at 9:44 PM on November 20, 2005

Finally (I apologize for not putting this in my earlier post). The Chicago Manual of Style has this to say.
"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" and with respect to plural numbers it opines "Chicago style omits the apostrophe, but the thing about style is, there is no single great arbiter who makes rules that everyone follows. Different houses use different styles. Following a particular style allows a person to be consistent within a given document, but it really doesn't matter which style you choose."

If the goal is to be clear, the key is to be consistent. Since I prefer the disambiguous use of apostrophes for groups of letters and numbers, I also use it for acronyms and abbreviations. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. So, in the end it looks like we agree (I'm just using an older standard,at least with respect to multiple instances of a number).

FYI, this is a pretty cool resource. I'm bookmarking it. Oddly, spell checker thinks "disambiguous" is not a word. Is it right?
posted by oddman at 10:01 PM on November 20, 2005

but the thing about style is, there is no single great arbiter who makes rules that everyone follows.

Ah, if only all would learn this.

It is truly hard to guess in this case: which version might really annoy someone (boss, client, teacher)? It's a tough choice. I think the non-apostrophe version is a bit more common, but I'm not sure. And how do you know that whomever is to judge your work is not the opposite of what you pick?

The best you can do is be consistent.
posted by teece at 10:08 PM on November 20, 2005

Just as a minor aside to this most-interesting discussion - in Spanish, there is no possessive apostrophe - you either say "My book" or "Your book", or "The book of John" (in a non-biblical sense), and plural abbreviations are made in a peculiar manner, by doubling the letter representing the pluralised word. ie: "EE.UU." is "Estados Unidos" ("United States")...
posted by benzo8 at 11:50 PM on November 20, 2005

this is a pretty cool resource

Chicago is preferred in academic circles. Again, this is a point which will vary depending on the authority you're referencing. We could find contradictory citations all day. I've chosen to come down in the camp of dropping the apostrophe, because it's clearer and avoids confusion with the possessive. But since most of my standards were learned in the trenches of print journalism, I tend to display habits ingrained by AP Style. Fore example, " Years -- To indicate a decade, add an "s." to the first year in the decade. Example: In the 1960s, I did a lot of things I don't remember."

Another AP style reference says: "Plural forms: Numbers like 3s get the s but no apostrophe. (The same rule applies to decades: The 1920s.)
Single letters like K's get the s and an apostrophe.
Multiple letters like ABCs get the s but no apostrophe."

...and even AP style evolves as editors convene to argue about these very ideas and create a newly edited annual version of the stylebook.

the non-apostrophe version is a bit more common

Definitely true in print journalism, the Times' headlines aside.
posted by Miko at 7:08 AM on November 21, 2005

It's not a moral issue, but it's worth at least attempting to be correct in your usage.

*restrains self from profanity with some difficulty*

Look, there is no such thing as "correct" per se in this matter. I can prove this to you. There is such a thing as correct spelling; it is unambiguously wrong to spell the word cataclysm, say, as "cataclism" or "kataclysm." If you find such a misspelling in the Times and call it to their attention, they will not say "Oh, that's our style," they'll say "Sorry, these typos seem to be creeping in more and more frequently." It's wrong and everybody knows it.

This is completely different. One style guide calls for the apostrophe; another doesn't. You may prefer one over the other, and that's fine; that doesn't make it "correct." Do you seriously think the Times is deliberately choosing to be wrong? (Spare me the politics, please.) It really bothers me that people are so ready to elevate their personal taste to some sort of universal standard.

Read teece's comments (particularly the enlightening one about the history of the apostrophe) and recalibrate accordingly.

And for you "PIN number" nazis, how do you feel about "SAT test"? Wrong! To quote Amy Einsohn's sensible The Copyeditor's Handbook:
A former redundonym, SAT test, however, is no longer a redundonym. In 1997 the College Board, the company that administers the exam, announced that "SAT is not an initialism.. . . The SAT has become the trademark; it doesn't stand for anything."
And while we're on the subject, it's silly to object to "the hoi polloi," too, unless you're willing to monitor the etymology of every single word and phrase you use. If you reject "the hoi polloi," don't allow yourself to say "the Alhambra" either—it's just as "redundant."

Language is the property of its users, not of some imagined Authority. If people say "ATM machine" and "PIN number," which they overwhelmingly do, it's good English. End of story, unless you just like bitching and moaning because it makes you feel good.
posted by languagehat at 7:12 AM on November 21, 2005

I taught grammar to high school students a couple years ago, and our textbook went with the apostrophe on this issue, so I don't think you can say it's "only the NYTimes"... and it makes sense because it can be confusing without ("remember to dot your is"). The Chicago manual solution of only using the apostrophe for lower case letters is a decent compromise, but the irregularity is unsatisfying. At the same time, many people will think it's a mistake (as many people in this thread have) so - you just can't win :)
posted by mdn at 7:13 AM on November 21, 2005

If people say "ATM machine" and "PIN number," which they overwhelmingly do, it's good English. End of story, unless you just like bitching and moaning because it makes you feel good.

Oh, I like bitching and moaning, but that's hardly my reasoning for having an issue with the people that persist in these redundonyms: I feel that it's a slippery slope. People aren't doing this because it clarifies a meaning, they aren't doing it because they've come to the conclusion that the initialism is no longer an initialism. Either it's a momentary lapse of memory, or they truly have no idea that the N in PIN stands for Number.

Similarly, when people write "it's" when they mean "its", it is not acceptable, is it? Yet, I bet you, languagehat, see it everywhere. How about "there" and "they're". Or, even "your" and "you're".

Perhaps we should just accept these things because those folks own that language -- "its there property, not you'res".
posted by thanotopsis at 3:23 PM on November 21, 2005

Well, there are several things going on here, and some of them can cause cognitive dissonance in this linguist-cum-editor, so I try not to contemplate them too deeply. But basically, all this shit is arbitrary, especially apostrophes; we make rules about where to put them out of a sense of orderliness that seems to have grown up in the last few centuries (in Shakespeare's day, people didn't even spell their own names the same way twice running), and then we get attached to the rules and blow them out of proportion and pay people (like me) to make sure they're observed, and get all nasty at people who don't observe them properly. But that doesn't make them "correct"—it's just an agreed-on convention that could change tomorrow, just as the hyphens in words are always coming and going (base ball becomes base-ball becomes baseball). Best not to get too hot and bothered about it.
posted by languagehat at 5:44 PM on November 21, 2005

a sense of orderliness that seems to have grown up in the last few centuries

...along with the explosion of mass media reaching populations that had less and less in common, creating a need for grater consistency in the printed word across vastly different places and groups of readers. Also, establishing standards allows groups to differentiate themselves in ways they consider meaningful (the French, Webster's American dictionary, use of regionalisms).

Best not to get too hot and bothered about it.

And nobody would if grammar and usage weren't cultural shibboleths with class-mobility implications

In all seriousness, languagehat, I understand where you're coming from, respect your knowledge, and recognize that there is truth in what you say about arbitrariness. But usage is more than simply capricious taste. There are good historical reasons for the evolution of language standards, and language (for good or ill) is a social marker of important qualities - education, class, reasoning ability, and so on. That's why you're paid to work with it, and that's why these discussions continue, and why standards are helpful in slowing down the pace of change and allowing us all to be able to talk to one another in print more easily.
posted by Miko at 8:27 AM on December 11, 2005

The one that always bugs me is content-management systems: CMSs. Correct, but disturbing. (Also SMSs, I suppose, and BBSs, but I seem to recall that one always written as BBSes.)
posted by joeclark at 2:22 PM on December 15, 2005

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