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A Short Lesson on the Use of the Apostrophe

A Short Lesson on the Use of the Apostrophe - RF CafeHow would you pluralize VCO, BJT, or SAW? My awareness of certain often seen grammatical errors in both technical and non-technical media is heightened by the large numbers of technical articles I read, so certain errors tend to stand out. Some of the errors are likely made out of uncertainness and/or an unwillingness to challenge de facto (yet still incorrect) standards. Capitalization in titles is one area of flagrant abuse, where capitalizing all words, capitalizing the first letter of every word, capitalizing the first letter of only the first word, or randomly capitalizing by using no particular rule is seen nearly everywhere. I've already written about capitalization in titles, though, so all I will add to the topic is that The New York Times is the most consistently good source for grammatically correct headline titles, and NPR is consistently one of the worst. But, I digress because the main purpose of this article is to inform the reader about the proper use of an apostrophe, particularly as it applies to plurals.

If you are like most writers I have seen, you would pluralize VCO as VCO's, BJT as BJT's, and SAW as SAW's. Doing so is grammatically incorrect. The apostrophe is used primarily to show possession, omission, and plural words that end with the letter 's.' Possession examples include Anne's cellphone and Charles' house. Omission examples include contractions like aren't and we've. Plural words ending in 's' include the boys' shoes and three days' time. That is about it.


Per the Oxford English Dictionary:

There are one or two cases in which it is acceptable to use an apostrophe to form a plural, purely for the sake of clarity:

  1. You can use an apostrophe to show the plurals of single letters:
    1. I've dotted the i's and crossed the t's.
    2. Find all the p's in appear.
  2. You can use an apostrophe to show the plurals of single numbers:
    1. Find all the number 7’s.

These are the only cases in which it is generally considered acceptable to use an apostrophe to form plurals: remember that an apostrophe should never be used to form the plural of ordinary nouns, names, abbreviations, or numerical dates.


That means the proper form of the aforementioned abbreviations is VCOs, BJTs, and SAWs.

If you care to capitalize your titles properly and are not sure of how to keep the rules in mind, try using this Capitalization My Title website. I just now thought to search to see whether something like this exists and sure enough, there it is. I plugged in a few test cases and it seems to do a pretty good job.

BTW, the word "it's" (with apostrophe) is the contraction form of "it is;" e.g, "It's dinner time." The possessive form of "it" is "its" (w/o apostrophe); e.g., "Its weight is about 10 pounds." Also, the units of kilohertz, megahertz, gigahertz, and decibel are abbreviated as kHz, MHz, GHz, dB, respectively. Finally proper grammar in technical writing requires a space between value numbers and units; e.g.; 10 dB, not 10dB.

We as technicians and engineers do not settle for presenting less than our best ability when it comes to technical content; let us strive to attain the same degree in our writing. English is still primarily the language of the scientific world. Keep the bar high and the effort will be noticed.

You're welcome.





Posted  March 26, 2014

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