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A Word, Please: A would-be worry that isn't

April 19, 2013|By June Casagrande
  • Columnist June Casagrade
Columnist June Casagrade

An island nation you can't find on a map can threaten your retirement savings. Your health insurer could refuse to pay your medical bills by arguing you're covered only if someone drops a baby grand piano on your head, not an upright. On any given day, a celebrity might say mean things to a singer you support through text messaging.

It's a worrisome world.

Language is even worse. Every time you speak, you open yourself up to knuckle-rapping from self-appointed experts.

So today I figured I'd offer a little reprieve. Here's a writing matter you probably needn't worry about at all: initials.

Pretty much everyone who ever applied for a job paused while typing a resume and wondered: Do I have a B.A. in English or a BA? An M.A. or an MA? Is it Ph.D. or PhD?

Initials of proper names are confusing, too. Is it RJ Smith, R.J. Smith or even R. J. Smith, with spaces between the letters?

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And would you put periods in the initials of South Carolina, intelligence quotient, Alcoholics Anonymous, American Automobile Assn., compact disc, the United States or the United States of America?

Type any of these initials with our without periods and you'll see that they look pretty good either way, offering no clue whether you should use periods. It's enough to give you heart palpitations.

But that clueless feeling is actually a good thing: All the alternative ways for punctuating abbreviations look correct because they are correct. There's no single right way to do it, not even in professional publishing.

Editing styles often have specific instructions for academic degrees. Associated Press style says to use periods. "She has her M.A. and her Ph.D." But Chicago style, which book editors follow, prefers no periods in academic degrees. She has her MA and her PhD.

In most contexts, you can use either style. Just be consistent. And either way, you don't need an apostrophe to form the plural. She has two MAs and two PhDs. She has two M.A.s and two Ph.D.s.

But those are just the special rules for degrees. There are different rules for initials representing people's names. Whenever letters stand in for part of a person's name, periods are used. But whether to space them depends on editing style. News style uses no spaces. H.L. Mencken. W.E.B. Du Bois. Book style puts a space between the letters. H. L. Mencken. W. E. B. Du Bois. But both styles agree that letters representing whole names, such as JFK and FDR, take no periods or spaces.

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