Apostrophe in plural

A friend wrote me yesterday with this punctuational query (edited here to cloak some details):

I am teaching an online course … this semester …  The course material is mostly pre-written for me, but I’ve been going through it myself, of course.  One thing I noted is that acronyms [what I would call initialisms; see below] are sometimes made plural with the letter s, sometimes with apostrophe s.  I guess what bothers me most is the inconsistency.

I was looking through Language Log and your blog for the topic of plural acronyms with and without apostrophes, but came up blank.  Do you know of anything on current thoughts on this topic, or have any yourself?

MBA (Master in Business Administration) is an initialistic name of a degree; is its plural MBAs (no apostrophe) or MBA’s?

Basic point: the issues is entirely about conventions of the written language. In speech, the plural of /ɛm bi e/ is /ɛm bi ez/, no issue.

Terminological point, from this posting:

The terminology I have used for some time (and will continue to use) is the following:

alphabetic abbreviations: acronyms, in which a sequence of letters is pronounced as a word, using the spelling (as in NATO); and initialisms, in which the abbreviation is pronounced as a sequence of letter-names (as in FBI).

Unfortunately, Geoff Pullum’s terminology (which follows that in CGEL) is different.

Then there’s the matter of consistency, to which I’ll return later.

Looking at what people have had to say about the writing conventions, I see opinions all over the map. There are writers who insist that the apostrophe in these cases is always wrong, wrong wrong, just evil. Then there is Roy Blount, Jr. (in Alphabet Juice, 2008), with a middle course (which is pretty much mine):

We rightly shudder at promiscuous or misplaced apostrophization, for instance when a family named Bennett puts up a sign in front of their house that says The Bennett’s, thereby suggesting that there is oly one, self-aggrandizing Bennett.  (The Bennetts or The Bennetts’ would do.)  But sometimes we hear that apostrophes should never be used in a plural.  For instance in The Alphabet Abcedarium, by Richard A. Firmage: “For clarity I have occasionally inserted the mark (usually with vowels, e.g., O’s) although my preference is to be technically correct and omit them.”  Hey, Richard, don’t apologize.  It’s helpful to use an apostrophe in the plural of a letter of numeral: T’s, w’s, 9’s.  What is the reader to make of Ts and ws or even 9s?  That last looks like nine shillings, or a typo.  If you were to write, “There are four is in Mississippi,” or for that matter, “four ss in Mississippi”—you see what I mean.  “Four i’s and four s’s” is the only way to go.

Even the Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t go all the way:

Q. Why do you continue to support the nonpossessive apostrophe, as in CD’s, MBA’s? It serves no function whatsoever.

A. Actually, Chicago generally omits the apostrophe in the plurals of initialisms, while acknowledging its usefulness in some cases, such as to distinguish As from A’s. (Not that punctuation is necessarily logical, you know; sometimes it is simply based on convention.)

The kerfluffle presumable originates in misuses of the apostrophe in plurals. in particular, from anxiety over the greengrocer’s apostrophe:

Apostrophes used in a non-standard manner to form noun plurals are known as greengrocers’ apostrophes or grocers’ apostrophes, often called (spelled) greengrocer’s apostrophes and grocer’s apostrophes. They are sometimes humorously called greengrocers apostrophe’s, rogue apostrophes, or idiot’s apostrophes … The practice, once common and acceptable …, comes from the identical sound of the plural and possessive forms of most English nouns. It is often criticised as a form of hypercorrection coming from a widespread ignorance of the proper use of the apostrophe or of punctuation in general. Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, points out that before the 19th century, it was standard orthography to use the apostrophe to form a plural of a foreign-sounding word that ended in a vowel (e. g., banana’s, folio’s, logo’s, quarto’s, pasta’s, ouzo’s) to clarify pronunciation. Truss says this usage is no longer considered proper in formal writing.

The term is believed to have been coined in the middle of the 20th century by a teacher of languages working in Liverpool, at a time when such mistakes were common in the handwritten signs and advertisements of greengrocers (e. g., Apple’s 1/- a pound, Orange’s 1/6d a pound). Some have argued that its use in mass communication by employees of well-known companies has led to the less literate assuming it to be correct and adopting the habit themselves. (Wikipedia link)

But you can avoid such spellings while still entertaining some apostrophied plurals of initialisms. It’s a matter of visual clarity.

Now on consistency. I asked my correspondent:

Tell me about the inconsistency that you see. Does the material use an apostrophe for some initialism plurals and not for others, or  is it actually inconsistent in its usage on a particular initialism?

and he replied:

Both, actually. For example, sea surface temperatures [is] abbreviated SSTs ot SST’s. There seems no rhyme or reason.  Note that there aren’t generally any dots (no S.S.T.).

Let’s get the periods of abbreviation out of the way first. Some style sheets insist on them — as I’ve often written, the New York Times suffers from extreme periodophilia; the paper is fanatic about those periods — while others insist on not using them (for reasons of brevity). Technical writing is, in general, extremely sparing in abbreviatory periods. There is absolutely no substantive point here, and there are style sheets that eschew periods in almost all circumstances except a few (like U.S. and U.K.).

Consistency is a vexing point. I suspect that there are writers who use apostrophic plurals consistently in some cases and don’t use them in others. But, as my correspondent points out, this isn’t true for everybody; there’s genuine variation.

When I’ve looked at other cases of such variation, my conclusion has almost always been: Why should anyone care? What difference does it make? These are orthographic equivalents of phonological variants in speech, and they rarely have any consequences for understanding, so why insist on One Right Way?

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