June 9, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: lose or loose & possessive adjectives with units of time and value or consult your journal

Posted in lose or loose, possessive adjectives, units of time and value at 5:58 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Loose or lose

When I get a note that I am going to use in the WLUT, I generally correct the spelling and grammar to avoid any unnecessary distractions. Well, last week, I almost missed a mistake and only caught it at the last minute, thus, making it a prime candidate for this week’s tip:

Just today I read another version—the catheter was lose, so it was ‘replaced’ not that it was replaced but placed again.

This is such a common error that I found websites which are solely devoted to publishing examples of lose and loose being mixed up and used erroneously (some people have WAY too much time on their hands, but still…)

Here’s the scoop:

Loose, as an adjective, means free from anything that binds or restrains, unfettered (Source: dictionary.com).

Lose is a verb that means to come to be without or fail to win (Ibid.).

[NOTE: Ibid. is short for the Latin, ibidem, meaning in the same place, and is used when the bibliographic reference is the same as the one immediately preceding it. The ‘I’ should be capitalized but the abbreviation should not be  italicized.]

The ‘s’ in loose is pronounced as an ‘s’ and is sibilant.

He found lots of loose change in his pocket.

The ‘s’ in lose is pronounced like a z.

She was loath to lose the race.

The reason I mention the pronunciation is that remembering whether you are using the ‘s’ sound or the ‘z’ sound will help you to remember which word you are really looking for—lose (looz) or loose (looss).

Tip 2: Possessive adjectives with units of time and value or consult your journal

A reader writes:

Here is a burning question.

I am writing a paper about premature infants. The first author (a neonatologist) and I are writing “weeks gestation,” as in “24 weeks gestation.” Another co-author—who is a perinatal epidemiologist and an editor of a major journal—thinks it should be “weeks’ gestation.” That seems wrong, because the weeks don’t possess the gestation. However, I see both usages, but mostly “weeks gestation,” on the net. Grammatically, “weeks of gestation” or “gestational age in weeks” seems right, but they are clumsy and long, and aren’t used much.

This is what I wrote back to the reader, off the top of my head:

Of course, you are right; it should be 24 weeks gestation as there is no possession there. It’s the same as saying someone is six months pregnant. It’s merely describing the amount of time. Since gestation is a noun, 24 weeks is serving as the adjective.

The only problem is that this runs contrary to the style guides. This results in a bit of a dilemma.

Before writing a question up for the WLUT, I always try to do a bit of investigation. For this issue, first, I looked in some obstetric journals, but I found it written both ways (with the apostrophe and without), so that was no help. I asked some of my obstetrician friends, and they were unanimous that the apostrophe should not be used:

24 weeks’ gestation or 24 weeks gestation?

“Without apostrophe.”

 “The second is correct. No possession.”

“I have never seen the apostrophe, and it makes no sense to me to use one.”

 “I agree. I have never used this. Maybe the apostrophe stands for “of”—24 weeks’ gestation = 24 weeks of gestation.”

This was reassuring and, seemingly, moving towards definitive. I asked a basic scientist who is also a veterinarian, and she scoffed at the use of the apostrophe. I googled it and found it written both ways, but both forms seemed equally common, so I still had more research to do. I still had no answer, but it seemed to me that, despite my instinct and the instincts of my researcher and scientist friends, the inclusion of the apostrophe was a popular usage. I finally had to write back to the reader to say that I was still researching this, but I think I may be changing my mind, and it should be  24 weeks’ gestation. GULP. But I still had no definitive answer.

Finally, I looked it up on the AMA Manual of Style (not an easy task, the index is not intuitive), but there it was, under the discussion of apostrophes:

8.7.6 Units of Time and Money as Possessive Adjectives.

With units of time (minute, hour, day, month, year, etc.) used as possessive adjectives, an ‘s is added. The same holds true for monetary terms:

a day’s wait                     a few hours’ time        an hour’s delay

6 months’ gestation         5 days’ hard work        a dollar’s worth

Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007. 

Well, I’ll be. With units of time and money, you use a possessive adjective.

To be sure, I double checked with The Chicago Manual of Style. I never did find a specific section addressing this, but I found this entry on creating an index for a book:

16.101: Schedule for indexing

 intensive and time-consuming. An index for a three-hundred-page book could take as much as three weeks’ work or more. See also 16.4. The Chicago Manual of Style, University of Chicago Press, 16th Edition, 2010 

There it was again, a possessive adjective.

Finally, I looked up ‘possessives” in Garner’s Modern American Usage, and found this:

 Units of Time or Value. The idiomatic possessive should be used with periods of time and statements of worth—hence 30 days’ notice (i.e., notice of 30 days), three days’ time, 20 dollars’ worth, and several years’ experience.

Does this mean that this is the definitive answer? That’s hard to say. I will say that I am convinced it is definitive with respect to units of time or value OTHER than gestation, and I will always write 14 days’ notice, for example. Furthermore, you generally can’t go wrong following AMA style or Chicago style. But the operative word, here, is style. Styles are different from rules. I am having a hard time getting past the fact that many, very smart people, well-published investigators in the field, immediately rejected the use of the apostrophe with respect to gestation, and there is clear evidence that it is commonly published in peer-reviewed journals without the apostrophe. I think there is sufficient evidence to say that 24 weeks gestation is an accepted convention.

This is what I recommend. If you are submitting to JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), absolutely use the apostrophe. Otherwise, look at a few issues of the journal for which you are writing the manuscript,  and see if there is a consistent convention. If there is, use it.  After all, the goal is to get published. If there isn’t a consistent convention, choose whatever style you want; just be sure to use that style consistently throughout.

However, with other words associated with units of time or currency, use the apostrophe.

Finally, use of the possessive adjective doesn’t apply to the phrase I used in my first response to the reader: “6 months pregnant.” Since pregnant is an adjective, not a noun, the possessive form does not apply, and the correct phrase would, indeed, be “6 months pregnant.”

Yikes, that was exhausting.

1 Comment »

  1. Jessica-Jean said,

    Just found this site; wasn’t actually looking for it though. I’d like to get an e-mail when there’s something new posted, please. Thank you.


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