Versus and Its Abbreviations

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader wants to know more about the use of the word versus and its abbreviations:

I have seen “versus” spelled out and abbreviated as both “vs.” and “v.” Is there any rhyme or reason to this word?

The earliest citation of versus in the OED is in a legal context dated 1447: “John Husset versus John Notte.”

The word comes from the Latin verb vertere: “to turn, turn back, be turned, translate.” Versus is the past participle of vertare. Its meanings in English include “against” and “as opposed or compared to”:

The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans

Researchers examine autism differences in boys versus girls

Depending on context, versus may be spelled out or abbreviated. The abbreviated form vs. is pronounced “versus.”

The abbreviation for versus in the title of a case at law is the letter v followed by a period:

Brown v. Board of Education

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

This legal abbreviation is usually pronounced like the name of the letter: “vee,” but I’ve heard lawyer characters on Law and Order say “versus.”

Note: The title of a court case, like the title of a book, is italicized, including the v. In other contexts, the word versus and abbreviation vs. are not italicized. In British usage, the period after vs. is omitted.

Versus, vs. and vs, are often used in headlines:

Steelers hope breakout versus Colts only the start

Dogs versus cats: Take the quiz!

Minnesota launches deer vs. trees debate

Babies vs Pets in Viral Advertising

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends spelling out versus “in ordinary speech and writing” and abbreviating it as v. in court cases. According to AP, the abbreviation vs. is acceptable “in short expressions,” as in “The issue of guns vs. butter has long been with us.”

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7 Responses to “Versus and Its Abbreviations”

  • Jon

    At a very slight tangent, I cringe every time I hear “versing” used in a competitive sense. “Which team are we versing this week?”

    Is it a generational thing? Or is it an Australianism I have yet to accept?

  • venqax

    Ooo, Maeve you”ve hit a nerve! Teaching law-oriented courses. I hate it when cases are written “vs” instead of “v”, with or without the period as is if a court case were a basketball game. And you see it done a lot, even in text books. I haven’t looked at the history of it, but I think it must be contamination from the sports world; and lawyers are notoriously bad at corrupting their own legal language almost as soon as they do normal English and what, we guess, must have been Latin or Norman French at one time (you’d need an archaeologist to tell). In British parlance is (or was) common to say “against” for the v. So, Smith v. Jones was read aloud as “Smith against Jones”. I don’t know if that is still true.

  • Maeve

    I haven’t heard that one. It rattles my language gene, but it makes sense.

  • Maeve

    A reader sent me this via the info address:

    In the United Kingdom, v. stands for “and” when dealing with a civil court case and for “against” when dealing with a criminal case. The famous fictional case of Kramer v. Kramer would be pronounced as “Kramer and Kramer.” The criminal trial of R. v. Kramer would be pronounced as “The Queen against Kramer,” or “the Crown against Kramer.”
    Being from Canada, it appears we seem to follow both conventions – and or against AND versus.

  • venqax

    That is very interesting, Maeve. I don’t remember civil cases from the UK, but I’m sure they came up. Thanks!

  • Phillip Mar

    Versus or vs. is very often used simply as comparison rather than in opposition to, as in a legal case (particularly in medical and scientific writing). I think this where the use of versus can become questionable. For instance, where two test results are compared – ‘37% vs 54%’

  • Bob Enyart

    Vs vs. vs. The article mentions the common use without a period in headlines. But I’m wondering if omitting the period is acceptable in other writing.

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