Roaring 20's or Roaring 20s?

Someone just wrote me asking what my position is on using an apostrophe after plural numbers, like the 20’s, 50’s, 80’s, etc.

Generally I feel that the apostrophe is not required, and I don't use it myself; but my correspondent pointed out that most usage guides insist that using the apostrophe is wrong.

Generally apostrophes are used to indicate possession (“Shirley’s dimple”) and contraction (“can’t“).

Apostrophes inserted in mere plurals are a pet peeve of usage critics. You sell used cars, not “used car's.”

But what about letters as plural? “Learn your ABC’s” and “mind your P’s and Q’s” are widely accepted because when our minds are focussed on treating letters as words, it’s awkward to switch to thinking of the “S” following as functioning in a different way from the other letters. Although conservatives reject this sort of thing, I think it’s too well established to consider an error.

It does show a certain amount of confusion when you see the same ad featuring “TV’s” and “DVRs.” Here the letters are not being treated as nouns as such, but are initialisms, standing for longer expressions. But many sign-makers can’t make up their minds whether to use an apostrophe after them or not.

Look under “acronyms and apostrophes” on p. 4 of my book for my discussion of this point.

See also “RBI’s/RBIs” on p. 191.

Having allowed plural apostrophes when letters are treated like words, it seems logical to also allow their use after decade names which are formed of numbers.

Andy Chen, writing on Wordreference.com says that he found the apostrophe being used on the Web 20 times more often than it was omitted.

I think this is a lost cause. I still object to “potato’s” but “the Roaring 20’s” doesn’t bother me.


thenakedlistener said...

Far too many apostrophes in this world of ours today. Far too many unnecessary apostrophes as well.

The apostrophe in 1980's is just unnecessary - although I grant you we see quite a bit of it being used in older writings.

In school (in the 1960s and 70s) I (painfully) remember we were punished for using apostrophes like that.

Cornelius Sneed said...

I think this is all the more confusing for people these days because it is apparently considered proper in UK English to use apostrophes in 20’s, 50’s, 80’s, CD's, DVD's and so on, as they seem to be considered to follow the same rule as contractions. So as with spellings, apostrophe usage varies depending on what side of the pond you're from.

Tom said...

Also see my post from May 2011: "The third way: apostophes as visual separators"

Unknown said...

I was taught at the academy for the Grammar Police, not the Grammar Mafia. "20" and "twenty" are two (2) ways of expressing the exact same thing. If one wouldn't say "roaring twenty's," why would they say "roaring 20's"? People in my neighborhood mistakenly say "ideal" when they should say "idea." If it is your contention that, since this error has been passed from one generation to the next for countless years, it is now acceptable?

Apostrophe's (well, why NOT?) are also an annoyance when they are used on signs that identify the resident or residents of a dwelling-place. It irks me to see signs identifying the residents as "The Smith's," for example.

Erik Larsen said...

I'd go with "none of the above." The correct answer should be Roaring '20s. The apostrophe taking the place of the missing 19.

Babbeylonn said...

@Deborah Smith

I'd argue that in the case of "The Smith's" it's merely an ellipsis of "The Smith's House (or Home or Residence etc.)" and hence the apostrophe is justified. In other words the genitive construction is implied by the context; and as such it is clear that this is the house of The Smiths.

IPT said...

The roaring 20s is just a general statement but what if we were to say My twenties, would we use an appostrophe? My twenties indicates a possessive. So, should it be my 20's? When I was in my 20's, blah, blah, blah.

Tom said...

For the "my twenties" (or "my [fill in the decade]"), I would vote to spell it out rather than use numerals, so to my liking you have it right the first time there: "my twenties." As for possession, that's in the "my" part, so you wouldn't be inserting an apostrophe in the "my 20s" any more than you would in the spelled out version. After all, would it feel correct to write it as "my twenty's" or "my twenties'"? Nah . . . but I prefer to stick to the spelled out version: "my twenties."

Financial Times seems to like it spelled out: https://www.ft.com/content/d871188a-1a10-11e7-a266-12672483791a

Whereas Huffington Post seems to prefer numerals: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/30/thirtysomethings_n_6219808.html

Edited books generally follow Chicago Manual of Style on this and spell out the decade: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Numbers/faq0039.html

IPT said...

Yes... in my 20s is correct. Thanks to Tom for his reply. I later discovered further confirmation which I found in the BBC News style guide:
BBC News style guide

Use digits, without apostrophes. for example: "Henry Hyde is now in his mid-40s".

Thank you from IPT.