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I heard that the plurals of letters, numbers and words could be punctuated - with single quote marks on both sides - in this manner (especially in Britain):

'X's 'd's '5's 'thank-you's 'maybe's 'his's 'as's

I am sufficiently aware that we could italicize the letter, number or word and follow it with an unitalicized apostrophe 's'. We could also use just one apostrophe: x's, thank-you's, maybe's. This makes 'thank-you's and 'maybe's look possessive, not plural. In the two examples I just used in the previous sentence ('thank-you's and 'maybe's), the insertion of a single quote mark before and after each word (followed by an 's') definitively defines the plural of the word as a word. The same logic is applied to individual letters and numbers ('9's, 't's).

Bottom line, is my usage (albeit probably somewhat antiquated) correct?

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My suspicion is that this usage predates computers. Italics are not easily (or impossible to be) generated on older typewriters, and so many different tricks were used to avoid them.

For the most part, people used underlining (underscoring to some) to denote something that would if printed professionally be put into italics.

It is equally conceivable that some people chose to offset their items in single quotes to accomplish the same goal. This might especially be true due to the usage of italics (or underline) versus quotation marks when writing out citations.

In any case, being modern users of computers: Let's agree to pay tribute to Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), and use his italic typeface for readability and clarity of meaning!

  • All that said, are they correctly punctuated (whether the punctuation is outdated or not)? Thank you. – whippoorwill Feb 21 '14 at 15:27
  • I've definitely seen it used. I don't know if there is a correct or incorrect on this one, as it is a placeholder. In other words, if I am correct that it is a manuscript stand-in for italics, its usage could be replaced by any symbology you pleased as long as it was understood by the typesetter. – David M Feb 21 '14 at 15:32
  • I certainly think that the single quotes (or double, if you prefer) fit nicely around 'I love you' to denote its plural in the following sentence. Agreed? I heard enough 'I love you's for one day! – whippoorwill Feb 21 '14 at 16:09
  • @whippoorwill Yes, but as that is an expression said aloud, it tends to fit regardless. – David M Feb 21 '14 at 16:31
  • The single quotes work great here as well: They said their ‘I do’s in a church in London. Also here: He used too many ‘discontinued’s in his essay. Does anybody agree? – whippoorwill Feb 26 '14 at 10:59
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I'm not clear what your usage is, but assuming it is 's's, or s s (ignore the space between the italic s and the normal one - the editor won't allow anything else), I follow your thinking.

I'm a traditionalist and instinctively resent seeing plurals with apostrophes, (s's) simply on the ground that they imply the possessive case.

However...

If the symbol is being referred to in the plural, it is not distinct from the plural - a man is a man; men are men. Shouldn't the whole thing be italicised, and if so, how do we distinguish between the symbol and the plural designator?

The case is consummately put forward by Sister Miriam Joseph in The Trivium. In the passage below, she's specifically talking about references to words:

Any word, phrase, or clause, no matter what part of speech it is in ordinary usage, becomes a noun when used in second imposition or in zero imposition because then it names itself. Words in zero or in second imposition should be italicized, and they form their plural by adding the apostrophe and s, for example: and’s, 2’s, p’s, and q’s. Words of the science of grammar and words of the sciences of phonetics and spelling, like all other words, can be used in each of the three impositions.

She's referring to a scholastic view of language, cf William of Ockham, which you can browse through here.

I love this stuff, because it takes you to the fount of language through language, but it's quite a jump - take a deep breath before you jump in! Enjoy!

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