Monday, October 12, 2009

Reading Peepee

Earlier this month, a blog I read, Pain in the English, wondered how we arrived at pp as an abbreviation for pages. A good question: Really, what the hell? And while I still don’t really understand why, I can at least give a little bit of info on the practice. Way back in freshman high school Latin, I saw a photo in the textbook of a Roman coin. On the coin was the face of some monarch or political official, and he or she was noted as being the rule of the British Isles. However, the coin referred to this area specifically as Brittania or something thereabouts, with a double “T.” The textbook noted that doubling the letter somehow made the word plural, in the same way as English-speakers today use pp to mean pages. Didn’t make sense, but that’s what the book said.

According to Wikipedia, this way of pluralizing abbreviations — by doubling the letter, without using periods — isn’t exactly common but nonetheless exists in English, Latin, and the languages that descended from Latin. It seems to be particularly prevalent in the world of writing and publishing — vv for volumes, ss for sections, MSS for manuscripts, dd for didots and opp for opera in the sense of that word being the plural of opus. The two that didn’t have anything to do with the written word were hh, for hands, as in the units used to measure the height of a horse, and PP for popes. I can’t imagine why only these seemed to have survived — or at least made it to Wikipedia — or why only pp seems to be widely understood, especially since I can imagine teachers would specifically avoid using it so as to prevent an opportunity for little kids to make the exact kind of joke I made in this blog post’s title.

I guess this style is an easy way to show plurality while still keeping the abbreviation as short as it possibly could be, but I can’t help myself from thinking that it’s a little strange. But then again, I may be spoiled by English, whose letter “S” makes pluralizing a lot easier than it is in, say, Latin. In fact, as far as letter abbreviations go, it’s very easy — CDs, DVDs, SATs, BMs, SOBs. The only problem our style of plural abbreviations poses is one that anyone having to write about report cards knows: “I got two Bs, two Cs, and two As,” with the last one being hard to distinguish from the word as, especially if you have a hatred of the grocer’s apostrophe ground in your head.


  1. This is extremely common in Spanish. We use pp. and also:

    Estados Unidos (United States) is abbreviated as EEUU for the plural.
    Also FFCC means Ferrocarriles (Trains)
    FFAA is Fuerzas Armadas (or Armed Forces)

    There are many and commonly used and understood.

  2. The apostrophe as a plural marker used to be common. fwiw this is from the Oxford Companion to the English Language:
    "Although this practice is rare in 20c standard usage, the apostrophe of plurality continues in at least five areas: (1) With abbreviations such as V.I.P.'s or VIP's, although forms such as VIPs are now widespread. (2) With letters of the alphabet, as in His i's are just like his a's and Dot your i's and cross your t's. In the phrase do's and don'ts, the apostrophe of plurality occurs in the first word but not the second, which has the apostrophe of omission: by and large, the use of two apostrophes close together (as in don't's) is avoided. (3) In decade dates, such as the 1980's, although such apostrophe-free forms as the 1980s are widespread, as are such truncations as the '80s, the form the '80's being unlikely. (4) In family names, especially if they end in -s, as in keeping up with the Jones's, as opposed to the Joneses, a form that is also common. (5) In the non-standard (‘illiterate’) use often called in BrE the greengrocer's apostrophe, as in apple's 55p per 1b and We sell the original shepherds pie's (notice in a shop window, Canterbury, England)."

  3. Alice: Thanks for this. I'd always thought that EEUU was an odd abbreviation of Los Estados Unidos but had never connected it with English's own double letter plurals.

    Goofy: How interesting. I'd think I'd heard before that the plural apostrophe was one more popular. Does anyone have theories as to why it's become so frowned upon? At the paper I work at, the policy is to not use the apostrophe in nearly every instance described above: VIPs, Bs and Cs, 1980s or '90s and Joneses. The one exception is do's and don'ts, which drives me nuts because it seems so strange to have the plural apostrophe in one and not the other. Not that don't's is any better. I guess it's one of those unsolvable English problems, like "Bs, Cs, and As."

  4. I don't know why the apostrophe of plurality became so stigmatized, but I'd guess it had something to do with One True Way: we already have a way of forming plurals, so a second way is therefore wrong.