How to Style Alphabetical Letters

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When are letters of the alphabet, appearing in isolation rather than as part of a word, capitalized, and when are they lowercased? When should they be italicized, and when is the normal type, called roman, employed? Here’s a general guide to styling letters.

Letters as Letters
When referring to a letter as an alphabetical character in print or online, style it in italics and use uppercase or lowercase forms as appropriate, as in the examples “Notice how the letter m is cut off so that it almost looks like an n” and “Engraved in the rock was a capital A.”

A roman apostrophe and a roman s are added to indicate a plural form, as in “When you wrote ballot, you included three l’s.” For capital letters, the apostrophe isn’t necessary: “The two Vs look like a W.” However, if plural forms of both uppercase and lowercase letters appear in the same document, for consistency, reconcile the style either way.

Letters employed in lieu of an entire word beginning with that letter to disguise profanity or otherwise avoid the word’s use are capitalized and styled in italics: “The F word” refers to an obscene four-letter word, for example, and “the D word” might appear in a perhaps jocular reference to relationships in which the writer declines to use the word divorce.

In idioms such as “Dot [one’s] i’s and cross [one’s] t’s” — or the humorous inversion “Cross [one’s] i’s and dot [one’s] t’s” — and “Mind [one’s] p’s and q’s,” the letters are traditionally not italicized, despite this custom being an exception to the rules described above; instead, an apostrophe is inserted before the plural s. Other idiomatic usage (for example, “the three Rs” and “to a T”) generally does not call for italicization, either.

Names of Letters
In the unlikely event that a letter needs to be referred to by name, it can be spelled out as indicated in dictionaries. However, the system is difficult to use because not all names of alphabetical characters are spelled intuitively, so they’re difficult to locate for verification: B and letters that rhyme with it are spelled bee, cee, and so on, but others are spelled, for example, aitch, cue, and wye.

Letter Grades
When the letters A, B, C, D, and F are used in educational contexts and, by extension, in informal analogous usage, as evaluative marks, they are not italicized. That’s because they refer to the points on the grading scale, not to letters of the alphabet; I’ve italicized them here, though, because I’ve named them as letters: “the letter A,” and so on. (Why, by the way, is there no E in the grading scale? Apparently, educators were concerned that this letter grade would be misconstrued as representing excellent, as F stands for failure, so although it was originally part of the grading scale, it was eventually omitted.)

An alternative system, often used euphemistically in lower grades, is E, G, F, P, and U (excellent, good, fair, poor, and unsatisfactory). No apostrophe is inserted before the plural s; for example, write “I had hoped to receive more As” or “She earned three Es last semester.”

Letters as Shapes
When letters are used to describe shapes, they are capitalized and styled in roman, as in “C clamp” and “T square.” Letters employed in this way are sometimes — in content printed or uploaded in serif type (any of many typefaces embellished with short strokes) — treated in sans serif type (any of many typefaces in which letters are made solely of straight lines and curves and lack appendages), but this approach looks awkward.

Music and Rhyme Schemes
In general, letters referring to musical keys and chords are capitalized in roman type — for example, “This song is in D.” (Technical usage such as references to octaves varies; consult specialized print publications or websites for more information.)

Rhyme schemes, however, are indicated in lowercase italic letters with no letter spaces between characters indicating a set of lines constituting a verse, as in “The poem is written in abba rhyme.”

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11 thoughts on “How to Style Alphabetical Letters”

  1. “I had hoped to receive more As” or “She earned three Es last semester.”

    is needlessly confusing in so far as ‘As’ is and will on first glance be taken as an independent word, requiring a re-read… not so much Es, still E’s is not confusing.

  2. As far as I am concerned, rules like these are overly complicated. I, for one, have never considered / knew/ them to be this varied, What’s wrong with simply, A’s, or P’s and Q’s, etc, etc?

  3. Amber:

    T-shirt, because the name refers to the shirt’s shape (just as an A-frame house resembles the outline of the capital letter A).

  4. David:

    That’s a good point, but I think that in context, As, even in isolation from other labels for grades, is clear.

  5. rAy:

    I would not mind if all the writing rules in the world could be written on the back of a business card — except that such reform would likely put this editor out of work — but partial simplification would best start with consistent elimination of, not consistent use of, the apostrophe with letters.

  6. Mr. Nichol:
    In total agreement, my objection is mostly with the jumping around of the apostrophe in the given examples.

    I have learned a lot since subscribing, from you and the others here.

    Thanks to all of you. Teachers please take no offense as it has to be extremely hard to teach such a complicated and boring subject which one does not appreciate until they actually learn to use it properly. Which is its own reward…….

  7. @Mark: If T-shirt gets a hyphen, then I think T-square (also shaped like a T) and C-clamp should get hyphens too.

    Also, F-word might need a hyphen, and/or might in itself need to be set off with quotation marks. Which is preferred?
    1. John used the “F” word and was thrown out of class.
    2. John used the F-word and was thrown out of class.
    3. John used the “F-word” and was thrown out of class.
    4. Not: John used “the F word” and was thrown out of class.

  8. thebluebird11:

    Style differs for such terms, according to Merriam-Webster’s website and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (C-clamp is, in fact, hyphenated, but “T square” is not), but, yes, it would be neater and tidier to treat them identically. Consistent hyphenation is easier on writers and editors, but a distinction should still be made between letters in designations for objects shaped like letters (roman) and first letters of bowdlerized words (italics).

  9. Besides a T shirt, there is kind of a men’s undershirt that is called an A shirt from its shape. Those might have gone out of style decades ago, but they still exist in stores, and in old movies, and in old books.

    There is also a kind of women’s or girl’s dress called an A-line dress.
    Then there are the I beam in construction, the K-truss, the O ring (a redundancy), and the U bolt. In highways, there is the S curve.
    There is a T connector in plumbing, but the piece that is shaped like an L is called an “elbow”.

    In words that don’t have anything to do with shapes, there are the E-boat (in the Kriegsmarine), the U-boat (German navy), the G-string (or does it?), and the X-ray. In the Imperial Japanese Navy, an I-boat was a submarine.

  10. In three-phase electric power transmission, there are two basic formats of the connections that are named for their shapes. There is the “delta” connection, shaped like the capital Greek letter delta, and there is the Y connection, which some engineers write a Wye – as I noticed above, too.

    In the design process, there is also a reasonably simple mathematical conversion from one to the other, and it is called a Y-delta conversion, but with “delta” usually written in Greek.

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