Reflections on “Versus”

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The following sentence from an editorial about a money-saving measure taken by our local county government caught my eye:

It’s about cost-effective verses cheap.

The misspelling of versus was the eye magnet, but then I started thinking about the use of the word itself.

I don’t hear the word versus or see it written out very often anymore. It may still have currency among sports writers, but I don’t read the sports page, so I can’t say.

As a legal term, versus has been in the language since the 15th century:

preposition denoting action of one party against another, from L. versus “turned toward or against”

When I was in school, versus was commonly abbreviated as vs and italicized:

McCulloch vs Maryland (1819)
Miranda vs Arizona (1966)

Now the usual practice is to abbreviate versus as v. and not italicize it:

Roe v. Wade (1973)
Gregg v. Georgia (1976)

When it was still being written vs, the abbreviation was read as “versus.” Nowadays the practice is to pronounce the v as the letter name: “Gregg [VEE] Georgia (1976)”

By now, many younger English speakers may be unaware that the v. in the name of a court case stands for versus.

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8 thoughts on “Reflections on “Versus””

  1. That’s no excuse for poor sub-editing. Writers and sub-editors should be well-read. They should know when something looks wrong. And verses in that context looks wrong.

  2. In the Canadian legal system (and I think that this is true of other non-American common law jurisidictions), the “v.” in case names is pronounced “and”. Although it stands for the Latin “versus”, we use the English word “and” when saying a case name aloud. Similarly, we use “R.” as an abbreviation for Rex or Regina, but say “The King” or “The Queen”.

    So while we write “R. v. Oakes”, we say “The Queen and Oakes”.

  3. We use “versus” in the medical field all the time. For example, when a medical consultant sees a patient (at the request of the patient’s physician), and the consultant is dictating the report of the consultation, he/she will present the case and the results of the examination, then offer his/her impression. So for example in a patient with difficulty breathing, the impression might read, “Cardiac versus pulmonary causes of shortness of breath.” The doctor is saying that he/she doesn’t know yet which is the cause of the patient’s problem. He/she will then usually suggest tests that need to be done in order to differentiate between them and get to the root of the patient’s problem. Still, it’s always spelled versus!

  4. I believe the v., as opposed to vs., in your example Roe v. Wade is use becuase Roe v. Wade is a legal case citation and the v. thus complies with the common legal citation rules from “The Bluebook.” I was under the impression that in normal usage, the abbreviation vs. was more appropriate.

  5. I’m compelled to add my two cents, having worked as a paralegal for 26 years. During my legal career, I saw hundreds of thousands of captions (the title of a case, showing what party is suing what party).

    In legal writing, captions are typically underlined or italicized, and either “vs.” or “v.” is used, depending on preference. My personal preference is Roe v. Wade.

    However, in my post-legal career as a freelance copyeditor, I usually advise against abbreviating versus in narrative text. The Chicago Manual of Style, section 5.198 is called “Grammar versus usage.” There is a brief discussion there concerning the difference between corollary and correlation. The section concludes that “Some confusions, such as the one just cited, are relatively new. Others, such as lay versus lie and infer versus imply, are much older.” (emphasis added).

  6. “Nowadays the paractice (sic) is to pronounce the v as the letter name: “Gregg [VEE] Georgia (1976)”
    By now, many younger English speakers may be unaware that the v. in the name of a court case stands for versus.”

    I think this might be an Americanism. Certainly in Australia, the “v” is known as “versus”, not “vee”.

    If I may digress… as a legal secretary, I’ve noticed a tendency to confuse “v” and “ats”. “Ats” means “at the suit of” and is used by solicitors acting for the defendant. The claimant’s solicitors will head their letters “Re: Smith v Jones” and the defendant’s solicitors should write “Re: Jones ats Smith” – but often they will dictate “Jones v Smith” in error, and often the secretary doesn’t make the correction. This has the potential to cause some confusion.

  7. Re: Maribeth,

    That is my understanding as well. Legal citations in most common law jurisdictions use “v.” whereas “vs.” is much more common in non-legal usage.

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