January 16, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Using apostrophes

Posted in apostrophe, apostrophes and plurals, apostrophes in dates at 6:10 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Using apostrophes

Quick. Which of the following sentences is correct?

  1. The age-adjusted obesity prevalence among all adults was 35.7%, which was an increase from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
  2. The age-adjusted obesity prevalence among all adults was 35.7%, which was an increase from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The answer is sentence 2. Why?

Answer: You should never use apostrophes to make dates plural.

That’s today’s tip. That’s all there is to it. I’ve been reading a lot of proposals lately, and I have seen this error more times than I can tell you. Matter of fact, that first sentence is from a proposal I just read. Check the “Significance” section—that’s where we tend to talk about decades and the past.

And this is what I have to say. CUT IT OUT!

Okay, I know some smart aleck will say “What about when you are talking about a year? For instance you can say, “1918’s vintage was particularly smooth.”

But, here, you are using the apostrophe to show possession, not to make the year plural.

[NOTE: I was curious about the origin of ‘smart aleck’ and found this:

Alec Hoag was a celebrated pimp, thief, and confidence man operating out of New York City in the 1840’s.

I swear, that was what I found, I did not put the apostrophe in the 1840s! But arrgh, I say. It’s everywhere.]

As a general rule, apostrophes are not used to form plurals although that is a very common mistake. Apostrophes have three possible uses, and one of them is pretty rare. The most common use is to show possession.

Put another way, in 10 years, it is not clear whether today’s 60 year olds will look like today’s 70s year olds (age effect is most important) or more like themselves (cohort effect is most important).

The scientist’s earliest research efforts focused on the etiology of the disease.

The other common use is to indicate that some characters are missing.

Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t show the results that we hoped to see.

The ’70s was a pretty wild decade for the baby boomers.

And this is the uncommon use: apostrophes are occasionally (rarely) used to create plurals of lowercase and uppercase letters when confusion might exist without such use. Remember, I said, “As a general rule, apostrophes are not used to form plurals.” This is the exception to the general rule.

I am hoping to get all Bs.

Since we don’t know the context, that might be confusing, so we would clarify it by writing:

I am hoping to get all B’s.

But remember, the apostrophe is used to avoid confusion, so if the context is clear, the apostrophe is not needed.

On my report card, I am hoping to get all Bs.

So you’ll cut it out, right? Thanks.

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