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A Word, Please: Three different styles for apostrophes, and each can be defended

“Three people sign a treaty with just a large X. In an article referencing the treaty, they are referred to as the three ... Xes, X’s or Xs?”

That’s a question Saturday Evening Post editor Andy Hollandbeck posed recently to fellow editors on social media. Their answers are enlightening.

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We’ll get to them in a moment.

But far more enlightening is the question itself. Why would an editor have to ask? Why would he anticipate that fellow editors could disagree?

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Editors are supposed to know such things, right? It’s our job, isn’t it? We’re human repositories of knowledge about all the rules that govern language, are we not?

Of course not. And that’s not how editing works. It’s not even how language works. If you read between the lines, there’s good news here: It’s OK to not have all the answers about punctuation and grammar because editors don’t have all the answers.

How did Hollandbeck’s peers answer? By the time 34 people had chimed in, the results were: 3% preferred Xes, 50% preferred X’s, 47% preferred Xs.

Who’s right? Technically, they all are.

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I’m on Team Xs. No apostrophe. My reason lies in the punctuation rules. Editors who disagree with me also rely on rules. They’re just using a different interpretation or, quite possibly, different rules.

Apostrophes have two specific jobs. They show possession, “Brenda’s hat,” and they’re used in contractions, as when you turn “do not” into “don’t.”

But you can also use an apostrophe to form a plural when it will eliminate ambiguity. To me, that means: Never use an apostrophe to form a plural unless it’s necessary.

The Los Angeles Times’ in-house editing style guide, which has been most influential on me, says: “Use an apostrophe in forming plurals of single vowels: A’s, E’s, I’s, O’s, U’s.” … Do not use an apostrophe in the plurals of other letters; uppercase the letters when forming plurals: Js, Ss.”

In other words, in L.A. Times style, you would write that a good student got A’s and Bs. Notice that without the apostrophe after A, you’d get the word “as.” So here, the apostrophe is helping to prevent confusion.

That comment about uppercasing the letters is important, too. We see that when we look at the Chicago Manual of Style, whose rules say you should write the plural of the letter s as s’s, lowercase with an apostrophe, and you should write “mind your p’s and q’s” and “dot your i’s and cross your t’s.”

With lowercase letters, as you can see, the apostrophes are essential. Incidentally, Chicago recommends italics for these, as well.

Scholastic grades are another matter in Chicago style, which indicates you should write: “She finished with three As, one B, and two Cs.”

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Apparently, Chicago doesn’t worry that “A’s,” without the apostrophe, could be construed as “as.” The uppercase rule helps with clarity here.

The Associated Press Stylebook has its own take on these matters. AP agrees that “mind your p’s and q’s” takes apostrophes. (When you think about it, the apostrophe is the only thing making clear you don’t mean something that sounds like “Mind your pee ess and cue ess.”)

But for uppercase letters, AP takes the position opposite Chicago’s: “He learned the three R’s and brought home a report card with four A’s and two B’s.”

As for “Xes,” well, that one’s rooted in older editing guides and some dictionaries that say it’s customary to form the plural of words that end in S sounds with “es.” Boxes, foxes, bosses.

True, X isn’t really a word. But when it’s freestanding like a word, it makes sense to treat it as one. So even Xes is defensible, it’s just not very popular.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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