The Oct. 3 release of text messages from Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, raised a series of essential constitutional questions: What was he told to say, and by whom? What did the vice president and energy secretary have to do with all of it?
And most important, when you pluralize quid pro quo, should you do it with an apostrophe?
As the texts revealed, on Sept. 9 Sondland texted to Bill Taylor, U.S. chargé d’affaires in Ukraine: “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” Quid pro quo is Latin meaning “something for something” — important because, unless you’re Donald Trump talking with Kim Jong Un, you don’t give up something for nothing. Your first reaction: no way that apostrophe is correct. But then, wait a second: Quid pro quos doesn’t look right either. Is this actually a place where you’re supposed to use an apostrophe to pluralize?
Let’s first dispense with the obvious: Even before he hits the Latin, Sondland makes two punctuation errors in this sentence that should fully disqualify him from ambassadoring anywhere: He takes an extra keystroke to capitalize President, which — I don’t care how important you think a person is — you should never do unless the title is immediately preceding the president’s name. Second, he omits the crystal-clear colon that should follow the words crystal clear. So the sentence as written makes no sense, and we shouldn’t be looking to Sondland for punctuation advice.
Everyone but your grocer knows that you don’t pluralize a word with an apostrophe. But what if, every once in a while, you have to?
Angry Grammarian readers are all very smart, so they always received A grades. So did they get all A’s, or all As?
It starts with learning your alphabet early. Did they learn their ABC’s or their ABCs?
Style guides are maddeningly inconsistent. The Inquirer and the Associated Press tell you to “mind your p’s and q’s,” but Garner’s Modern American Usage writes “ps and qs” (italicizing only the p and q). Some, like the Chicago Manual of Style, have different rules for uppercase and lowercase letters: You got As and Bs by dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s.
In almost all cases, less punctuation is more. (No, Sondland’s missing colon is not one of those cases.) The more you use unnecessary punctuation, the more you slow your readers down, give their eyes things to trip over. When you overpunctuate, you’re giving too many opportunities to pause or even stop reading.
But you also confuse your readers when your fanatical apostrophe lobotomies inadvertently create other words (like As) that you weren’t intending.
If it’s one letter, uppercase or lowercase, you have this grammarian’s blessing (nay, imperative) to pluralize with an apostrophe: A’s, B’s, i’s, z’s.
Anything longer than that? Whether in English or Latin, no ifs, ands, or buts about it: You leave those apostrophes to the fruit stand. “Peach’s for sale” is worthy of impeachment.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions and differentiated forms to email@example.com.