Writing tip: How to punctuate do's and don'ts? Life is short.

Style Guides: Economist, New Harts, Style Manual, Yahoo!How to punctuate 'do's and don'ts'? The experts disagree, so choose a rule and stick to it. Debate is pointless, and life is short.

A member of the TWIN (Technical Writers of India) group asked recently:

Just a quick one, what's the correct punctuation in "Dos and Don'ts"?

Please... please don't send me back to google, it has left me more confused than from when I started...

This is a genuinely messy little problem, and it's no wonder it confuses nearly everyone. Here's why you need to choose a style guide and accept its advice, or establish your own rule and stick to it.

There's one universally accepted rule:
Don't use an apostrophe to indicate plural.

And also a rule for exceptions, which is not universally accepted:
But do use an apostrophe to indicate plural for some small words where the meaning may be unclear.

CORRECT (everyone agrees): 'PCs'
CORRECT (everyone agrees): 'Dot the i's and cross the t's.'

But when we look at Dos (or Dos) and Don'ts (or Don't's), that's messy. It's impossible to be both consistent and clear, because dos looks like a programming term to some people, but don't's looks pretty crazy with two apostrophes. And when a word looks pretty crazy, that is a valid reason for not writing it.

Here are the (conflicting) verdicts from style guides I respect.

1. The Economist Style Guide:
CORRECT: Dos and don'ts.
(They call the plural possessive a false possessive and instruct: Do not commit this sin.

2. Style Manual, revised by Snooks and Co.
CORRECT: Dos and don'ts.
(Only allows plural apostrophe for plural of letters, e.g. p's and q's.

3. Yahoo! Style Guide:
CORRECT: Do's and don'ts.
(Allows plural apostrophe for plural of letters and words that would be confusing without an apostrophe.)

4. New Hart's Rules
CORRECT: you must decide for yourself.
(Allows plural apostrophe when clarity calls for it.)

Now choose your rule and stick to it. I hope you can see why it is pointless to hope to solve this problem with logic, and pointless to debate it. The four writers who responded with specific advice did not agree, and yet they were all correct.

Oh the joys of grammar! We think the rules are chiseled in marble. If we 'know a rule', we are sure it is right. In fact, many are debatable—and some people enjoy a hearty grammar debate. As for me, I aim for consistency and commonsense. And I often fail, as you will notice in this very blog post.


Aug 11, 2012 • Posted by Asoka Dissanayake

I agree. It is always advisable to follow the more common style. In fact, teaching a learner on how to use the apostrophe may be difficult but it will be easier to guide him to use the more acceptable way!

Apr 17, 2012 • Posted by Sandra Clark

Hello Rachel,
Your post caused me to think about the differences in the verdicts you listed; not quite relevant to your theme, but interesting. Do you think perhaps the Economist Style Guide, as the style guide of a publication that features many different authors in each issue, needs to impose that all-important consistency with a simple dictum. Whereas trusty Hart’s excellent rules are for editors and writers who are better able to choose whichever suits the context and apply that version consistently. Or maybe, as you wisely point out, the rules are just more bendy than we like to think.

Apr 18, 2012 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine


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