February 4, 2010

Language Tips: Academic degrees again & dreamt or dreamed

Posted in academic degrees, your and you're at 4:33 am by dlseltzer

Last week’s WLUT about academic degrees stirred up quite a fuss and inspired several questions and comments. So I decided to pursue this topic a bit more to see if we can resolve some of the issues.

Tip 1: Academic degrees again

First, to summarize the key points:

When abbreviating degrees, don’t use periods between letters (e.g., MS, BA, MPH, PhD).

When referring to a master’s or bachelor’s degree generically, spell the degree in lower case, and always use an apostrophe (e.g., a master’s degree, his bachelor’s degree).

When referring to a doctoral degree, use the term doctorate (e.g., She got her doctorate at Penn).

When referring to a specific degree, write the whole thing in lower case (e.g., bachelor of arts degree in psychology, doctor of philosophy degree in economics).

Finally, never use a title and the degree together (e.g., Dr. Ralph Kramden, PhD or Dr. Ann Oakley, MD).

Okay. There you have it.

Let’s start with a comment.

A reader writes:

I agree wholeheartedly with the recommendation to avoid use of “Dr.” and one’s degree concurrently. Here is my observation: Physicians rarely do it, chiropractors almost always do it, and others are in between. I think it is a matter of security.

Agreed, but I think it’s a matter of insecurity.

A reader writes:

Ok, I really appreciated this one, as always! But I am confused. I use master degree because it is a master degree program, not a master’s degree program. What function does the ‘s perform? I always thought of “master’s” as a contraction when shortening master degree (program).

There are really two issues, here: the first referring to the master degree program and the second referring to the issue of the ‘s. The first issue seems to be relatively straight forward; the second one gave me fits. Let’s see if I can straighten this out.

The key here is that the degree is the main thing. It actually isn’t a master degree program. It is a degree program. The program confers the degree upon someone. Master is an adjective, describing the kind of degree it is.

So why do we need the apostrophe s? I came up with a reason that complies with rules of grammar although I am not positive that it is true. Let me explain. The rule I am going for is this: Use an apostrophe when a word is omitted or implied.

This is the easy part.

He earned a master degree in English lit.

He earned a master’s.

In the second sentence, the words, degree in English lit, were omitted, so master became master’s.

So why the apostrophe s in master’s degree?

This is the part that I may be making up. It used to be that all master’s degrees were master of art degrees or master of science degrees. And while we still use these titles sometimes, we don’t always.

So the omitted (or implied) words are ‘of arts’ or ‘of science,’ and master of arts degree becomes master’s degree. What do you think? Will this resolve the issue for you?

A reader writes:

Usually I don’t comment about your tips, I just read and smile silently. However, today I just had a note:

For the usage of both the abbreviation and the title, (Dr. Ralph Kramden, PhD), is it not acceptable to use the abbreviation at the end to designate the type of doctor you are? Many times I have been introduced as doctor (oral and written), but had to clarify that I was not “that kind of doctor.”

I sympathize with your plight. The problem is that most people associate Dr. with medical doctor. ( By the way, I used PhD in the example but my comments would have been the same if the example had read ‘Dr. Ralph Kramden, MD.’) When you are writing, I would stick with ‘Alberta Hitchcock, PhD.’ But when someone else is doing the introduction, you are, to some extent, at their mercy. I would tell you not to be apologetic about not being ‘that kind of doctor.’ The world needs PhDs as well as MDs as well as JDs (this is just crying out for a lawyer joke, but I will refrain) and other doctoral degrees. My appointment is in Medicine, and when I first came here, I was called and asked if I would teach a course on diagnosis to medical students. My response was that I could teach them how to kiss someone on the forehead to see if the person had a temperature, but that was about the limit of my diagnostic skills. Maybe humor is the answer. Where possible, I would still avoid using both terms together. If you are mistaken for ‘that kind of a doctor,’ just let them know, with good humor, that you are ‘the other kind.’

A reader writes:

Do you think commas are critical between degrees? I’m amazed at the variation I’ve seen among journals.

Yay! An easy one. Yes, I would use commas between degrees. I think they are critical; they make reading and following the text easier, and I’m all for anything that simplifies anything in my life.

Finally, Wordboy weighs in:

What’s mine is mine, and what’s your is yours…by degree.

I read your posting on the topic of degrees, and while I agree with your degree decree, I was hoping for some further detail on the nexus between time and possession. As lexicographer J. Lennon put it “I, me, mine” matters. To my ear, saying that one earned his or her doctorate at Michigan sounds fine. But in the present or future (pluperfect?) tense, it sounds greedy. To wit, “I am going to get my MBA….” There is no diploma with his name on it, sitting on the shelf just waiting to be picked up. The use of the possessive with the future and present tense seems to connote a sense of entitlement. I suggest a more humble construction: I want to earn a Master’s in Communication. Or, more colloquially, “A doctorate would look good on my business card. Gotta get me one of those.”

Yours past, present and futurely,


As always, Wordboy, I really enjoy your post. However, I have to respectfully disagree. I don’t think it is a question of being greedy or a question of presumption or a question of arrogance; I think it is a question of activity.

What are you doing this year? I’m getting my master’s in literature.

Of course, there are other ways to say it: “I am working on my MBA;” “I am finishing up my master’s.” But I don’t think that the person speaking is feeling he or she is entitled-just that this is what he/she is doing.

What are you doing on Monday? I am going to get my teeth cleaned.

You wouldn’t say, “I am hoping to get my teeth cleaned,” you say, “I am getting my teeth cleaned-that is the activity I am planning to undertake.”

I think that some tend to imbue these advanced degrees with some magical quality. As an undergraduate, it would be fine to say, “I’m getting my BA in Communication.” Why couldn’t you use the same pattern for other degrees?

Finally, my only other comment on this would be to edit your last line. Instead of saying, ” A doctorate would look good on my business card. Gotta get me one of those,” may I suggest, ” A doctorate would look good on my business card. Gotta get me one of them.”

Tip 2: Dreamed or dreamt

I was asked, recently, if there was a difference between dreamed and dreamt. The person who asked had used both terms at different times, and both sounded right, but, she wondered, is one more correct than another as the past tense of dream?

The short answer is: they are both correct, and neither one is more correct than the other.

There are other, similar words for which we use alternative past tenses without batting an eye. Burned or burnt comes to mind as does creeped and crept.

The ‘ed’ ending is more common in the US, and the ‘t’ ending is more common in the UK. What is more interesting to me is that while we, in the US, use both versions of some of these words (e.g., burn, creep, dream), for other words, we only use the ‘ed’ ending and never the ‘t’ ending even though it is used all of the time in the UK. These would include ruin, learn, spoil, and spell, for example. In the US, we use ruined, learned, spoiled, and spelled, and would not use the more common UK versions, ruint, learnt, spoilt, and spelt. [NOTE: I recognize that some of the UK spellings can still be found in the deep south, but they certainly are not mainstream US spellings.]

I wonder why some words migrate across the sea and others do not.

Finally, it is also interesting to note that so much of our view of language has to do with what we are most familiar with. Fowler, who is from the UK, notes the ‘dreamed’ is the more poetic version of the word, while, most of us from the US, would probably view ‘dreamt’ as the more poetic.



  1. GPHemsley said,

    For the record, “I Me Mine” (both the song and the book) was written by George Harrison. John Lennon wasn’t even present for the recording.

    I’ll leave it up to you to determine whether this is relevant to this post.

  2. Matt Wingett said,

    Believe me, no-one in the mainstream of English in England uses the word “ruint”. In fact, this website is the first time I have ever encountered this construction. The “t” usually attaches to words that came into English from Old English, otherwise know as Anglo-Saxon. The term “ruin” entered the English language from Old French and was first used in Middle English. Hence, adding a “backward construction” to it would be a most peculiar thing to do.

    English is irregular as a language largely because of the long gestation period it has had, and because the spellings from earlier eras have been retained in some way, or are alluded to. Because most of its users don’t understand its etymology, they think English spelling is illogical rather than simply phonetically irregular. Having said that, it is illogical to some extent… but only partially. It is also largely “historically logical”.

    Hence, as soon as you see a word like “night”, “light”, “sight” and “height” you can be pretty sure that you are in the company of Anglo-Saxons or Germans.

    When you encounter words like “colour”, “fervour” and “favour” and “savour” you are among the Norman French.

    And when you encounter words like “articulate”, “matriculate” and “oblate” you are usually in the company of the Romans, mediaeval scholars, or Victorian gentlemen.

    Once you understand that simple fact and start to grasp the etymology of words, you can read the page of a book and savour 1500 words of history in the very shapes on the page. The spelling also gets a darn sight easier.

    This, by the way, is why I approve of American spelling used by Americans. It is a logical extension of the break with Britain after 1776 and all that.

    As a general note, it is untrue to say that in England we always prefer the Anglo-Saxon ending for the words you list above. We use either, and it is largely a matter of taste.

    That, however, is an aside. I thought I’d let you know about “ruin”. I’d hate this beautiful language to be ruint because it’s misspelled.

  3. Matt Wingett said,

    Oooops! Sorry, paragraph 6 should read “1500 years of history” – not “1500 words of history”! Now that would be a small vocabulary!

  4. Frankie said,

    I’ve just found this blog and am enjoying looking through previous posts. So far, it looks very reliable! However, I absolutely agree with Matt that “ruint” would not be used in England or in the rest of the UK.

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