Periods after abbreviations

Damien Hall halldj at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Tue Jun 29 14:29:25 UTC 2004

Arnold Zwicky said:


> Miss

whoa!  you put that last one  in just to make sure we were reading,
right?  "Miss" doesn't need a period, for anybody.


I'm glad to see that.  I didn't think so - it looks unbearably prissy to me -
but I have seen it in early-twentieth-century British texts.  Presumably it was
because I think the word was originally an abbreviation of 'Mistress' and the
writers thought that that should be indicated by putting a period in.  Never
mind that the period wouldn't have replaced any letters because there are none
after the double <s>.  I wouldn't have argued that 'Miss.' is current usage for
anyone but it's good to see it confirmed.  And thanks for the summary of
standard formal American usage.

John Baker remarked that neither 'Ms' nor 'Mrs' was an abbreviation for
anything.  I'd always thought that 'Mrs' was an abbreviation for 'Mistress';  a
strange case because 'Miss' is as well, but there you go.  Victorian English
seems to have used the phrase 'mistress of the house' quite commonly to mean
the lady at the top of it, so that would be the 'Mrs', not the 'Miss'.

I think that John's comments about the unwieldiness of a period in 'Rev.' but
not in 'St', in 'Co.' but not in 'Ltd', are spot-on;  that's presumably the
main reason why the so-called 'open punctuation' system has evolved, in Britain
at least.  (By the way, though, you can make it a little easier by saying that
'St' = 'Street' should never have a period because the <t> could come from the
end of the word - but that's a get-out, it seems to me.)

But I must defend my country against Duane Campbell's accusation of 'compulsive
overuse of commas'!  Perhaps it's due to an 'open punctuation' reflex gained
when I worked in an office writing letters, but many Americans who receive
e-mails from me (the type that begin 'Dear So-and-so') can be relied upon to
comment regularly on the fact that I never have a comma after the salutation,
whereas they always would.  It's also an absolute rule of British prescriptive
grammar (though clearly 'prescriptive' may be a four-letter word on this
listserv - perhaps we should all add it to our lists of words to be filtered out
by spam filters, replacing 'fuck' in that list) that, in lists, the penultimate
item never has a comma after it if there is also an 'and', whereas I note that
in America all items in such lists are followed by commas.  In fact, I can
probably make a stronger statement that (I was always taught that) 'and' should
never have a comma before it except in certain special circumstances where
clarity would be lost without a comma.  Common examples of such circumstances
are lists where the items are each several words long and need to be securely
delimited, and lists where the items themselves contain 'and' (obviously,
bibliographies commonly do).

Finally, David Banhart's examples of initialisms with periods in them all strike
me as things that would never be written with periods in British English, so
it's interesting that there's apparently variation across time in American
usage (cf Arnold's comment that initialisms often do not include periods).
David, when was the dictionary compiled?

Damien Hall
University of Pennsylvania

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