Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Grammar and Style

This morning I had an interesting discussion (argument?) over breakfast with Carlo Margio about the use of an apostrophe in abbreviations. I argued that an apostrophe was not required for plurals of abbreviations, such as CDs, whereas Carlo insisted it was, and that this was a valid style choice.

Carlo considers the NY Times the final word on most style issues and, after breakfast, he looked it up, finding the following FAQ: Why Do Plural Abbreviations Have an Apostrophe?. The key issue here is the use of an apostrophe in the plural of abbreviations that include periods. So, I should use apostrophes for abbreviations that include period; except that I prefer PhD and BSc to Ph.D. and B.Sc. anyway, and I've been doing away with unnecessary periods (and apostrophes) for a long time now.

The "physics convention" for acronyms (e.g. the Phys. Rev. style) includes no punctuation, which I have always liked. However, they permit 's for abbreviations:
To form the plural of numbers add s (1980s), to symbols add 's (A's), and to abbreviations add 's or s (NMR's or NMRs).
I strongly prefer NMRs to NMR's.

I find some style choices to be more sensible than others. Style choice depends upon your favo(u)rite flavo(u)r of English. I strongly prefer the American (Harvard)—and Oxford—use of serial commas to the Times UK (+Australian) convention. And I have always been bothered by the following two style and grammar choices:
  1. The use of an preceding words beginning with h;
  2. The need for a common-gender singular pronoun.
To adress these in turn:

1. The case for a: Consider constructs such as 
"Surprisingly this is an hypothesis..."
"If you are doing a history subject, or tackling a question in any subject that has an historical dimension...".
It should be clear that the use of an to precede words beginning with h is rather clumsy. Surely, if the h is not silent then one should use a instead of an?

Consider the following (taken from The Decline of Grammar by Geoffrey Nunberg):
It should be a source of satisfaction that the grammar books of a hundred years hence will be decrying to good effect the tendency to misuse literally, or to confuse imply and infer.
I do not think that "...an hundred..." would read better. See also the Elegant Variation and All That by Jesse Sheidlower.

2. The case for they: I quote Neville March Hunnings from the (UK) Times of September 17, 1998:
A common-gender singular pronoun now needs an elegant solution. "Him/her" and "s/he" are ugly; "him" or "her" is cumbersome. On the other hand, "they" has a respectable grammatical precedent. We no longer object to an individual being addressed as "you" rather than "thou". Why not "they" instead of "s/he"?
UPDATE: Stephen Fry says it better than me: Kinetic Typography - Language

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