Dos and Don’ts, or Do’s and Don’ts?

‘Dos and Don’ts’?
Or should it be ‘Do’s and Don’ts’?

Talking about dos and don’ts is such a familiar convention, we hardly even think about it. Until the time comes to write it down. Should it be dos and don’ts, do’s and don’ts or even do’s and don’t’s?

English is full of tricky little blinders like this. Incredibly easy to say, much harder to write. When it comes to pluralising words, it should be as simple as sticking an ‘s’ on the end, right? Unless the word you want to pluralise already ends in an s, that can be a head scratcher of a problem. If your surname ends in an s, e.g. Thomas, you’ve probably grown up with the problem and have either mastered, or don’t care about, where you place the apostrophe. I have an article about that here, if you’d like to dig a little deeper, but I’m straying from the matter at hand aren’t I?

Do doesn’t end in an s. So the plural of do should be quite straightforward shouldn’t it? Dos. The trouble is, it looks really odd when you write it down. Dos looks like it should rhyme with boss, or as if you’re talking about computer operating systems. So although the correct pluralisation of the word do is clearly dos, it’s quite understandable how it’s becoming more and more widely accepted to write it down as do’s and don’ts.

Are you still with me? Good. The problem with adding in an extraneous apostrophe, turning the word dos into the word do’s, is that by rights if we were to follow the same convention for its partner word don’ts, we would end up with the aberration don’t’s.

Don’t’s is patently absurd. That uses an apostrophe to replace the missing letter, turning do not into don’t, and then uses another extraneous apostrophe to signify that the do not has been pluralised, as don’t’s. This is so completely wrong, it turns the poor word into a joke.

So what is the answer?

The correct English usage is dos and don’ts.

This is always the convention you should use for any literary writing. For formal writing, apostrophes are not meant to be used to show missing letters, the words are meant to be spelled out in full.  So for professional or academic writing don’t would become do not. Dos and don’ts would become dos and do nots. (Although, the chances are pretty slim you would need to use a phrase like dos and don’ts in formal writing.)

When is it acceptable to write do’s and don’ts?

Increasingly, there are occasions when it’s more acceptable to use do’s and don’ts. Informal writing, such as blogging, has seen a proliferation of articles about do’s and don’ts. Not only is it widely tolerated in titles, it’s often encouraged. Style gurus, such as The Huffington Post and the Macmillan dictionary actively employ the use of do’s and don’ts.

Which should you use?

Hmm, well it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.

  • The Guardian says: dos and don’ts.
  • The Associated Press says: do’s and don’ts.
  • Shoot the Writer says: if you’re writing for someone else check their style guide. If you’re writing for yourself, use whatever you deem most appropriate for the situation. I would err on the side of dos and don’ts, but I see nothing wrong with writing articles about do’s and don’ts when you’re blogging, especially if you think it improves readability.

If I’m writing a dos and don’ts piece for publication online, my preference is to spell it ‘correctly’ as dos, but to use capitals and lower case letters combined to help guide the reader, i.e. The DOs and DON’Ts of Dog Training. This avoids dangling an extraneous apostrophe, whilst still improving on the odd readability of dos.