February 24, 2012

Spelling and punctuation of academic degree terms

I'm publishing an article shortly (if all goes well) about the history of the "J.D.," the law degree.  I've had to work out a system to refer to and punctuate the words for these degrees.  The bachelor's, master's and doctor's degrees are difficult for a writer to pluralize and to make into possessives. This is primarily because those words end in  -'s.  I've worked out an itty-bitty style guide for them.  A style guide helps my style be, at least, consistent.  (Below, I follow the convention of using an asterisk to refer to a non-existent or incorrect form.

General remarks:

There are six ways to refer to degrees in a sentence in modern writing.  With:
  • their letter abbreviations (B.A.), 
  • the spelled out, English or Latin degree name along with the word "degree": bachelor of arts degree, the degree of master of arts, juris doctor degree
  • the spelled out, English or Latin degree name without the word "degree"
  • one of three possessive (or genitive) -case single words, with or without the word "degree": bachelor's or bachelor's degree, master's or master's degree, doctor's or doctor's degree
  • using an -ate noun: baccalaureate (never *"bachelorate," apparently a non-word), doctorate or, rarely, masterate.  (The word "masterate" is listed by the Oxford English Dictionary as "chiefly N[ew] Z[ealand]," the only time I remember ever seeing it is in an American reference from the 1937 Proceedings of the American Association of Law Schools.) 
  • using baccalaureate or doctorate as an adjective, immediately followed by the word "degree."

The Latin sources of the degrees have to be shown so I can emphasize that each degree is a singular noun.  The B.A. is the "Bachelor of Arts," a translation of the Latin A.B., "Artium Baccalaureus".  M.A., Master of Arts, is from A.M., "Artium Magister," and Ph.D., "doctor of philosophy," is "Philosophiae Doctor."  "Baccalaureus," "Magister" and "Doctor" are all singular, so the degrees should be single in English, too.  *"Bachelors," *"masters" and *"doctors" are incorrect.    The style guide:

1) Capitalization:

The abbreviations of the degrees are generally capitalized according to Latin-abbreviations rules: for instance, B.A., M.A., M.D., J.D.  There seem to be three types of three-letter abbreviations, which you need to be alert for.  The first has three capital letters and two periods, as LL.D. (legum doctor or doctor of laws) and LL.M. (legum magister or master of laws).  The second has two capitals and two periods, as in Ph.D. philosophiae doctor)) and M.Ed. (master's in education, abbreviated according to the Latin rule).  The third and final abbreviations have three capitals and three periods, and typically abbreviate English titles, as in M.P.H. (master's in public health).  Degrees with even more letters exist, and you can extrapolate from these rules.

Don't put a space after any intermediate period in these abbreviations.

Spelled-out degrees:

When used in general terms, as in I want to get a master's degree, or the bachelor of science, there is no capitalization. If you refer to specifically to the degree offered at a university, as one would in promotional materials, capitalization is permissible: Georgetown offers a Master of Laws (or Master of Laws degree) in Taxation.

2) Pluralization:

The easiest and best way to pluralize is to include the word "degree," as in B.A. degrees or bachelor's degrees.  If you are using the abbreviations, you may pluralize as follows: B.A.s, J.D.s, etc., with no apostrophe before the s

Do not try to pluralize the one-word forms bachelor's or master's.  There's just no way to do this comfortably.

3) Possessives:

It's easy to add -'s to the word "degree" (or -' to an existing plural) to make a possessive, as in the bachelor's degree's value is undoubted.  You can add -'s to abbreviations as well, i.e., the M.A.'s value or two M.A.s' value.

You almost certainly can't put the one-word degrees "bachelor's," "master's" or "doctor's" into the possessive, any more than you can pluralize them, because the spelling problem of doubling the apostrophe, or apostrophe-s, is too ungainly.

4) You can refer to individuals by the degrees they possess.

Individuals can be referred metonymically as a Ph.D. or a J.D., but it seems much less natural to say, for lower-level degrees, "my son is a B.A." You can also say for holders of doctorates Bob is a doctor of law or Bob is a doctor of philosophy.

You may say Bob has . . . or Bob earned . . . any of the degrees.

5) Punctuation at the end of a sentence.

At the end of a sentence, do not put an extra period after the final period of an abbreviation.

I hope this style guide helps you in your writing!

1 comment:

  1. Yes, but how do you put your degree on a business card?

    David Perry, Ph.D.
    David Perry Ph.D.
    I.E. with or without the comma?