Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

In addition to word choice, word order and spelling, another area of grammar that deserves your attention is punctuation. Using the right punctuation marks in the right context can dramatically elevate your writing to another level… and using punctuation incorrectly can equally detract from your writing too. What happens when the do’s and don’t of punctuation get a little muddled?

More on point, how should you be punctuating the phrase “do’s and don’ts” in the first place?

Taking half a step back, let’s define the phrase. When someone is talking about the “do’s and don’ts” of something, they are referring to the set of rules pertaining to that something. They are talking about the things that you should do and the things that you should not do. For instance, among typical dining do’s and don’ts, you may be offered two guidelines: Do make polite conversation. Don’t talk with your mouth full.

Plurals Don’t Need Apostrophes, Right?

Now, consider these three main options:

  1. dos and don’ts
  2. do’s and don’t’s
  3. do’s and don’ts

As a general rule of thumb, we are told that we should not use apostrophes for pluralization. You have one apple and she has many apples (not many apple’s). Grunge music was popular in the 1990s (and not the 1990’s). However, there are times when apostrophes are used to provide greater clarity, as may be the case with “minding your p’s and q’s” and other similar phrases.

The Merits and Pitfalls of Options Three

Returning to our original question, which of the three options is the most preferable? The first option follows standard rules, avoiding the apostrophes for pluralization. It retains the apostrophe for the contraction don’t, which is short for do not. They all do. Part of the challenge here is that “dos” can look odd, as if you are writing the Spanish word for the number two.

The second option adds apostrophes for clarity. We have now avoided the “dos” problem by creating a new problem. Don’t’s just looks odd with the letter “T” flanked by an apostrophe on either side, each serving a different purpose. That’s not great either.

And so we arrive at the third option, adding an apostrophe for do’s but not for don’ts. This hybrid solution is perhaps the most pleasing to the eye at the cost of being the most inconsistent. In instances where grammar and punctuation may be a stylistic choice, many experts stress the importance of consistency. Choose your preference and stick with it.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

Personally, I’m still conflicted.

The purist in me wants to use option #1, but the visual writer in me wants to choose option #3. As with whether or not to use the Oxford comma, I don’t think the debate over how to punctuate “do’s and don’ts” is going to end any time soon. Which version do you prefer? Or do you even care at all?