Thursday, November 27, 2008

Q & A 159

I could use some help with a phrase I'm using - I'm not sure how to write it. The phrase is "We've been up and down the I's" (I is for Island). The 's looks possessive. On the other hand, using Is looks like I'm writing the word 'is'. If I use the apostrophe, will that work?


When I was in school an apostrophe + s was the way to pluralize a letter or number. For example:

You must have gone to school in the 1920's, Evil Editor.

So what if I got all C's and D's on my report card; I graduated, didn't I?

It's become acceptable to not use the apostrophe now, but I don't think that means using it is improper.

By the way, I would have had no idea what you were talking about if you hadn't told me I's meant Islands. People actually say that? Seems like it could get confusing when spoken aloud. For instance, Virginia has oddly shaped I's would mean something quite different from Virginia has oddly shaped eyes.

In short, use the apostrophe. And make sure the editor knows what the "I" stands for so she can change it to "Islands."

12 comments:

Steve Stubbs said...

I think spelling it out makes more sense. Aldous Huxley's novel is named ISLAND, not I.

writtenwyrdd said...

You'll need to change the sentence to make the abbreviation clear and use either the appropriate colloquial term (if that's what I's is) or islands. Isles is also a possibility. I can't see why you'd use an abbreviation in prose, either. If it's speech, it should be clear in context.

Ellie said...

I am not an evil editor, but it is acceptable to use the apostrophe or not (unless you have a style guide that mandates one way or the other, e.g., the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Style Guide requires the apostrophe.) However, if the word is ambiguous without it (such as Is) you are strongly encouraged to use the apostrophe. This means you could say "I got A's and B's" or "I got As and Bs" or "I got A's and Bs" (which just looks WRONG to me, but that's a matter of taste!)

In short: use the apostrophe in this case.

writtenwyrdd said...

You wouldn't use a mixed lot of punctuation, Ellie; you could go one way or the other, use the apostrophe everywhere or not at all. Every style guide I've checked (3) calls for consistency of the applied choice.

Min Yin said...

How about:
We've been up and down the "I"s looking for them.

... because I imagine the speaker could conceivably be using air quotes at that point?

Robin S. said...

Author here.

The meaning and context of the abbreviation is clear from the passage - so I wasn't worried about that. But, I checked around and wasn't clear on the latest 'done thing' for pluralizing letters. I was worried I'd be called on it this way, as it would be taken for a possessive somehow, rather than a plural.

Thanks for the help. Much appreciated.

Xenith said...

This rule is handy when you encounter those people with a Superior Education who like to say "An apostrophe is never used for plural".

Robin S. said...

I agree, xenith.

Anonymous said...

Most of us out there are rational enough to recognize that written language is supposed to communicate clearly, and that trumps rigid rule following.

talpianna said...

I think usage varies not only with the stylebook of choice, but also with nationality--consider the Oxford comma, which is standard in AE but not so much so in BE. I'd rather write "I was at Berkeley during the 60s" than "during the 60's; but what about "during the '60s," which I think is required by some style manuals? "I was at Berkeley during the '60's"?

Whirlochre said...

I's never encountered this expression until now.

Dave F. said...

I too, wouldn't have read "I is for Island." Never heard it before. I like it as a colorful phrase, though.