Minding my p’s and q’s


… crossing my t’s and other do’s and don’ts

Last month I said I would write about minding my p’s and q’s. I started by saying that I was brought up to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.[1] I was interested to read on the ‘alt-usage-english'[2] website that the most plausible explanation for the origin of this expression is ‘the one given in the latest edition of Collins English Dictionary: an alteration of ‘Mind your “please”s and “thank you”s’. Hey, doesn’t that look weird? How much better it looks as “Mind your ‘please’s and ‘thank you’s”. How much better still, in my opinion, is: ‘Mind your pleases and thank yous’ . . . we could argue about that.

While I’m here, the ‘alt-usage-english’ site gives some theories about the origin of that expression, including ‘an admonishment to children learning to write; [and] an admonishment to typesetters (who had to look at the letters reversed)’.[3]

There are plenty of expressions that involve the use of the apostrophe to show plural. Let’s look at a few of them.

Dot your i’s and cross your t’s

Using the apostrophe makes the sentence clear. Leaving them out makes it difficult to read: ‘Dot your is and cross your ts’. The Style manual weighs in on this one, suggesting that italics could be used for the i and the t: ‘Dot your is and cross your ts‘, but admits that the apostrophe version is still clearer.[4]

If if’s and an’s were pots and pans …

I suppose italic or nothing at all could be used here: ‘ifs and ans‘, ‘ifs and ans’.5 They are marginally clearer than single-letter words pluralised like this, but I still prefer the apostrophe version.

Tim had enough of her ‘maybe’s’

This sentence was tossed around some time ago on the Wordwizard Clubhouse web forum.[6] A contributor wrote, quoting the Chicago Manual of Style (14th edn):[7]

    In the category of “Words Used as Words,” it suggests that you omit apostrophes if you italicise the words but use an apostrophe if you put the word in quotes. For example, “Tim had enough of her ‘maybe’s.'”
    That seems a little confusing, so I’m going to omit the quotation marks I added to indicate what came directly out of CMS: Tim had enough of her “maybe’s.”[8]

Maybe, maybe not. I think if I were to write such a sentence, I’d just write: Tim had enough of her maybe’s – no quotation marks around the word.

Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, cites various uses for what she calls the ‘tractable apostrophe’, including:

    It indicates the plurals of letters: How many f’s in Fulham? (Larky answer, beloved of football fans: there’s only one f in Fulham) …

    It also indicates plurals of words: What are the do’s and don’t’s?[9]

Do’s and don’t’s?

I have to take issue with Ms Truss on this. I would write the sentence as:

    What are the do’s and don’ts?

An extra apostrophe, as in don’t’s is unnecessary.

There has been considerable argument recently on a wordplay list I belong to (WordWhirl), including the following:[10]

Referring to Webster’s Guide to Business Correspondence (1988) that deals with the issue of Words Used as Words:

    Words used as words without regard to meaning usually form their plurals by adding an apostrophe and a roman -s … five and’s in one sentence / all those wherefore’s and howsoever’s. … When [such a] word has become part of a fixed phrase, the plural is usually formed by adding a roman -s without the apostrophe – oohs and aahs / dos and don’ts

I agree with the contributor and Webster except for ‘dos‘. It is too easily confused these days with DOS – a computer operating system, pronounced [doss].

Mind you, that reference comes from a 1988 publication, and usage changes, even in fifteen years, so we could perhaps argue the toss about that too. Which reminds me:

In the eighties, the 80’s, the 80s or the ’80s?

The Style manual doesn’t care for any of them. It prefers in the 1980s, in full, no apostrophe.[11] I do too, but I tolerate in the eighties or in the ’80s, provided they are not used in formal writing.

I don’t think I’ve answered too many questions here, but I hope I’ve provided some food for thought.

Elizabeth Murphy

1 The Canberra Editor, vol. 14, no. 1, February 2005, p. 3.
2 Website of AUE, , viewed 23 February 2005.
3 Ibid.
4 Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, rev. Snooks & Co, , John Wiley & Sons, Sydney, 2002, p 88.
5 The rest of it is: ‘… there’d be no trade for tinkers’.
6 Website of Wordwizard Clubhouse – Apostrophe do’s and ‘don’ts’. and go to Archives, viewed 23 February 2005.
7 … which I don’t have access to – I’m quoting from the Wordwizard site here.
8 Wordwizard Clubhouse (as above).
9 Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Profile Books, London, 2003, p. 45.
10 Wordwhirl of 16 February 2005, , viewed 16 and 24 February 2005 (individual contributor not named as contributors often go by nicknames).
11 Style manual for authors, editors and printers, p. 170.

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