'Dos and Don'ts': How to Write Them With Proper Grammar

By Carly Forsaith, updated on March 3, 2023

Are you making a list of 'Dos and Don'ts'? You might be wondering how to spell it. The apostrophe usage can lead to confusion, and you'll see it spelled many different ways. But which one is correct? Let's find out.

There's no short answer to this one, as the spelling you use will depend on your style guide or your editor's preferred style. The important thing is to choose a style and stay consistent with it.

'Dos and Don'ts': How Should You Spell It?

English grammar can be confusing at best, with so many different style guides and individual preferences. And what with the natural evolution and increased flexibility of language, certain spellings are acceptable now that might not have been in the past.

The case of 'dos and don'ts' is a particular conundrum because it involves using apostrophes.

A Review of Apostrophe Usage

Let's have a quick review of apostrophe usage in the English language.

Apostrophes are traditionally used for two purposes:

  • With a noun to denote possession
    The book's pages are all torn up.
  • As a contraction to shorten a word
    I wouldn't go there if I were you.

Apostrophes are often mistakenly used to indicate plurality, but this is a mistake. To make a plural noun, you simply add an 's' with no apostrophe…

Most of the time.

What is less known about apostrophes is that there's often room for a personal decision as to whether or not one is needed.

For example:

  • If it's to avoid confusion, you can use an apostrophe where it isn't usually standard to do so.

To illustrate this, the Oxford Companion to the English Language says you can use apostrophes with single letters. Take the following famous phrase, for example:

Dot your i's and cross your t's.

Here, apostrophes are used for the letters' i' and 't,' which doesn't fit the conventional use since they neither denote possession nor a contraction in this context. However, if you were to forgo the use of apostrophes, this could lead to confusion.

Dot your is and cross your ts.

The letter' i' now looks like the word 'is,' while the 't,' well, just looks odd.

How to Know Whether to Use Apostrophes

So When Should You Use Apostrophes? Again, this is open to interpretation and depends on your preferred style guide. I personally agree with using an apostrophe, even in non-traditional ways, if it can eliminate any doubt about what I'm trying to say.

This mostly crops up with individual letters. Some would argue that would also apply to decades (the 1990's) or family names that end in 's' (the Harris's), while others will be irritated by your use of apostrophes in these cases.

To make matters worse, style guides disagree. Or perhaps you can view this as a positive thing: you get to pick the style that makes the most sense to you.

Overall, a good rule of thumb is to stay consistent. Pick a style and stick with it.

So How Should You Spell 'Dos and Don'ts'?

In conclusion, there are several different ways you could spell 'dos and don'ts':

Dos and don'ts

No additional apostrophe is used, only the contractive apostrophe in 'don't.'

Do's and don't's

The necessary contractive apostrophe in 'don't' is used, as well as the two apostrophes indicating plurality for 'do' and 'don't.'

Do's and don'ts

This one makes the least sense to me because the apostrophe use isn't consistent: the 'do' uses a plural apostrophe, but the 'don't doesn't. However, this is still accepted in some style guides.

The following are incorrect:

Do's and dont's

The apostrophe between the 'n' and 't' in 'don't is needed, as it marks the contraction.

'Dos and donts'

Same reason as above.

Example Sentences With 'Dos and Don'ts'

Now that we've clarified the appropriate use of apostrophes and the various ways you can spell 'dos and don'ts,' we will look at some examples of this phrase used in context.

I'm going to use the spelling 'dos and don'ts.'

In today's class, we'll cover the dos and don'ts of wearing color.

Please check the organization's handbook for a list of employee dos and don'ts.

Read this article on the dos and don'ts of job hunting before you send in your application.

These dos and don'ts don't really resonate with the audience we're writing for.

There are a few dos and don'ts I'd like to go over before we enter the facility.

Concluding Thoughts

So there you have it: apostrophes can be pretty versatile and adaptable; you simply need to know when you can get away with it. Here's a summary of what we've learned:

  • Apostrophes usually denote possession or mark a contraction
  • Apostrophes can also be used outside of convention when they help avoid confusion
  • Overall, try to stay consistent

If you found this article helpful, you might enjoy our growing database of Grammar Rules articles.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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