October 7, 2012

Is This Apostrophe Really Necessary?

Oakland Athletics logo
I was watching the playoff game between the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers last night, and I saw something in the Oakland logo—see image at right—I had never noticed before. The apostrophe in the logo seems to makes no sense.

The Athletics, of course, are more commonly referred to as the Oakland A’s. No doubt, there are style guides that advise that plurals of single letters always require ’s, but neither common sense nor the style guide I usually consult, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), advocates such usage.

Apostrophes most commonly indicate either a possessive case (as in George’s) or the elision of letters (as, for example, in contractions like don’t). An apostrophe is also used to indicate a simple plural when the letter involved is lowercased (as in a’s), since, in the absence of the apostrophe, the combination of letters could be mistaken for another word (as, in the example).

Here is the main part of the entry on the topic from the 16th edition of CMOS (7.14, p. 353):
Plurals for letters, abbreviations, and numerals. Capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations usually form the plural by adding s. To aid comprehension, lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s.
When referring to the team as the Oakland A’s, A’s acts as a noun, and there is no possession implied. Oakland A’s is the semantic equivalent of Oakland Athletics. This suggests a rather farfetched justification for the use of the apostrophe, namely, that A’s could be an abbreviation for Athletics, with the apostrophe standing in for the omitted thletic. This is not reasonable because A is itself an abbreviation (or nickname) for Athletic. Just as the Pittsburgh Pirates comprise players, each of whom is a Pirate, the Oakland Athletics comprise players, each of whom is an Athletic, or, if you prefer, an A. (One can find examples of players described as an Athletic or an A.) This usage for the Oakland team seems odd only because Athletic is not usually a noun, so the locution is usually avoided. The team traces its history to the Philadelphia Athletics and the athletic clubs of the late 19th century, whose members were apparently called athletics.

All of this is to say that the Oakland A’s should really be the Oakland As, but I don’t expect this little essay to change anything. I suspect that, when A’s was first used, use of the apostrophe in such situation was common. More modern usage has become simplified and more logical.

Interestingly, plural team names never seem to be used in the possessive case. One never sees anyone writing about the Pirates’ manager, only about the Pirates manager. Likewise, no one reads about the Yankees’ owner or, God forbid, the A’s’ owner!

Errors involving apostrophes are common. I recently received a mailing from Family Video that included the slogan “Home of the Free Kids Movies!” This seems to refer to movies about kids, but what is meant is movies for kids. The slogan should have been “Home of the Free Kids’ Movies.” Of course, we speak of “adult movies.” Should we not, by analogy, speak of “kid movies”?


  1. Come now, Lionel.

    If not for the apostrophe, they'd be joked about as the Oakland "as": "as awful as the city they come from!"

    As someone who was born/grew up an hour or two from Oakland, and who lived for 10 years 2 hour from Detroit, I can recognize the hard-luck quality of BOTH cities.

    Go A's! And if the A's fail, Beat the Yankees! (if B'more doesn't)

    But regardless: GO GIANTS! (my true baseball love: doesn't look good for us right now, down 4-0 in the 8th, already down 1-0 in NLDS)

  2. I suspect that when someone was designing the original Kansas City Athletics uniform (I think that is where they started) the rule that a single letter abbreviation required an apostrophe "s" was more rigid. And given that absent the apostrophe, we would see most people read it as the "as" rather than the "A's" or Athletics, I think it a good choice.

    I have not been watching the playoffs. Too busy and no rooting interest after the White Sox did a Cub-like self-destruct at the end. ;;siigh;;


    1. I suspect you’re right, Jim, though the Athletics started in Philadelphia. They seem to have moved around a lot.

    2. Athletic people do move around a lot. ;-)

  3. My Giants came back from the dead, and Detroit won their G5, too (nice try, A's). The (hated) Yanks won in 5, and so did the Cards (rallying from 6-0 in the final game).

    I love playoff season. Baseball: the Beautiful Game.

    GO GIANTS!!!

    1. The playoffs have been fun to watch. I’m only sorry I’ve not been able to watch more of the games.


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