The dos and don’ts of “dos and don’ts”

Lesson: Forming plurals and the role of the apostrophe

A common mistake in English writing appears, strangely enough, when we write lists of dos and don’ts. Many people mistakenly write “do’s and don’ts” (with an apostrophe in “dos”).

The proper way is to write dos and don’ts—with no apostrophe in dos.

Apostrophes are reserved for showing possession. Take this sentence, for example: This is Sally’s cookie. Here, the apostrophe in “Sally’s” shows us that the cookie is reserved for Sally. Sally possesses the cookie.

We also use apostrophes to indicate missing letters in contractions. When we write “shouldn’t,” for example, the apostrophe indicates the missing letter “o.”

Apostrophes rarely form plurals. This is why if you have more than one “do” on your list, you have “dos,” not “do’s.” (The only time I know of when apostrophes form plurals is with lowercase letters. Example: There are five x’s.)

Another common apostrophe conundrum
Along with “dos,” another common apostrophe mistake comes when people write about years. When writing, for instance, about the ten-year period that made up the 1990s, you would not use an apostrophe before the letter “s.” The proper way to refer to a date range, whether it is the 1990s or the 1800s or any other period of time, is to do like you do with your multiple “dos.” Simply add an “s,” and forget about the apostrophe altogether.

About Erin Roof

Editor for hire. Dictionary collector. Part-time cat lady. Word nerd blogging at grammarpartyblog.com
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12 Responses to The dos and don’ts of “dos and don’ts”

  1. Zounds. I was always told that apostrophes are needed to indicate plurality if their absence hurts comprehension.

    EX: “Always dot your i’s”, NOT “Always dot your is”

    Similarly, with your example, to make sure no one thought I was talking about Microsoft DOS, I’d say “Do’s and don’ts”

    Thoughts?

    • Erin Roof says:

      You’re right about the lowercase letters. I went through The Chicago Manual of Style again and saw that section 7.14 gives the example of lowercase letters becoming plural by using the apostrophe. (But not capital letters.) I guess not even copy editors are perfect. Darn. I updated this post to include the lowercase letter exception.

      As for your Microsoft DOS example, I would just avoid this problem by only using Apple products. All joking aside, the lowercase letter exception was the only I found in that style guide–though, I can’t vouch for all style guides. Chicago does specifically point out that “dos and don’ts” is spelled as I explained in this post.

      Thanks for your comment. It’s much appreciated.

  2. Jacquelyn says:

    What about italicizing “do” and “don’t” before the s to identify those words as noun terms instead of their usual verb use? dos and don’ts

    • Erin Roof says:

      That certainly is one way to handle it. For some reason, I don’t like when only part of a word is italicized. To me, it looks confusing. But that is totally my personal preference. Many people may find your idea very helpful.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Martin says:

    I think part of the confusion on years comes from the use of apostrophes to leave out the century when talking about a decade; for example ’80s, ’90s. You’re entirely correct about not needing an apostrophe before the s (unless it’s something belonging to a year – “1994’s top-selling single” – normal possessive rules apply).

  4. Laura says:

    Many authorities also allow the use of the apostrophe in the plural of capital letters if the absence of the mark would be confusing, like the Oakland A’s.

  5. Brian says:

    I amd using dos and don’ts in the title of a book I am writing and although I know in my heart you are correct, it just looks wrong to me. Even worse I am talking about computers so dos could easily be read as dos. What to do, maybe I will go with the italicised idea. Thanks for this dilemma :-)

  6. Rick Roy says:

    As a scientist, I’m used to seeing italics for foreign words (e.g., species names) and phrases (e.g., “in vitro”, “sensu stricto”). An italicized “do” followed by a plain “s” would make me wonder if I was completely misreading it.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Ok. But, doesn’t it depend on what the unabbreviated sentence was? The most common unabbreviated phrase I hear is “Do this and do not do that.” So, couldn’t you abbreviate Do this, as Do’s?

  8. Erin says:

    Leaving out the apostrophe only hurts comprehension to people who don’t understand grammar.

  9. Matt says:

    The history behind using apostrophes for plurals AND contractions is that originally, all apostrophes implied a contraction. The term apostrophed still means shortened, abbreviated or contracted in modern English. In old English, it was normal to add the ending -es for possessive adjectives. So what we now write as John’s book, or Elizabeth’s horse, would once have been written Johnes book or Elizabethes horse. Over time we have dropped the letter e altogether, adopting the contracted version as standard. The apostrophe in possessive adjectives is a replacement for the letter e.

  10. PJ says:

    The AP Stylebook recommends ‘Do’s and Don’ts’.

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