Tag Archives: spelling tips

OK, Let’s Talk About How to Spell “Okay,” O.K.?

O.K., you know what’s weird? OK is one of the most commonly used words in English (—which is pretty darn high when you realize that ). But there’s no definitive way to spell okay! Why is it that we don’t know how to spell a word that we use every day? Because it started as an abbreviation and has become a full word over time.

The word dates back to 1839, when there was a fad in New York and Boston slang to misspell a saying and then abbreviate it. , an excellent guide to etymology, lists a few others that didn’t stand the test of time:

  • K.G. for no go, as if spelled know go
  • N.C. for ’nuff ced
  • K.Y. for know yuse

O.K. is an abbreviation for oll korrect. It probably would have disappeared along with the other abbreviations if not for the 1840 presidential election. Martin Van Buren was nicknamed Old Kinderhook (after the village in upstate New York where he was born), and his supporters formed the O.K. Club.

You can buy this 1840 wood-block engraving showing the origin of O.K. for just $2,295 on eBay.

The first instance of spelling out okay was in 1895, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but this spelling wasn’t popularized until the 1930s; President Woodrow Wilson (who served from 1913 to 1921) apparently approved government papers by writing okeh.

But over the second half of the twentieth century, the new spelling really took off. shows the skyrocketing popularity of okay over O.K. and OK in published books.

Does this mean you should use okay? Not necessarily. The major style guides actually lean toward OK.

The AP Stylebook—favored by newspapers—puts it succinctly: “OK, OK’d, OK’ing, OKs. Do not use okay.”

The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing—the guide for academic writing—doesn’t directly address the question, but it recommends turning to a reliable dictionary such as Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary for spelling questions and notes, “Where entries show variant spellings, use the form given first.” Webster’s lists OK first, so that is the preferred spelling for academic work.

The Chicago Manual of Style—used by book publishers—is silent on the issue, too, but in a Q&A on the website, the editors responded:

CMOS doesn’t specify, but as it happens, the manual uses ‘OK’ twice … and does not use ‘okay’ at all. … We follow Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which puts ‘OK’ as the first spelling—but that does not mean it is preferred. Rather, ‘okay’ is an equal variant (also standard).”

If you like periods with your abbreviations, it’s not incorrect to use them in this case, but it is a bit outdated. At this point, the only major publications that favor O.K. with periods are and .

So how should you spell it? If you’re not bound to a particular style guide, choose whichever spelling you like best. As always with questions of style, though, pick one and be consistent.

Presidents Day? President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? How Do You Spell the Upcoming Holiday?

We’re all counting down to the upcoming three-day weekend, but many of us don’t know how to write the name of the holiday on Monday correctly. Is it Presidents Day? How about President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? Well, it all depends on whom you ask.

Most dictionaries and The Chicago Manual of Style favor Presidents’ Day. The apostrophe at the end of the word indicates a plural possessive: It’s a day that belongs to multiple presidents. But the AP Stylebook—perhaps taking its cue from Veterans Day—favors Presidents Day, as in a day of more than one president. You could maybe make an argument for President’s Day, but no official reference book will back you up on that. Why are there two “correct” ways to spell the holiday? Believe it or not, Presidents’ Day (which, as a Chicago Manual enthusiast, I will choose to spell with an apostrophe at the end) is not an official holiday.

The federal holiday is called Washington’s Birthday; the term Presidents’ Day was popularized by marketers seizing on an occasion for a sale. The presidents it refers to are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who both had birthdays in February.

Washington was born on either February 11, 1731, or February 22, 1732, depending on whether you use the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar (both were in use at the time; we use the Gregorian calendar now). Many states started celebrating his birthday on February 22, 1832, in honor of the centennial of his birth. It was made a federal holiday in 1879.

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. Since 1922, it’s been a tradition to lay a ceremonial wreath at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on his birthday, and many states celebrate it as an official holiday. But it has never been a federal holiday.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, enacted in 1971, moved several holidays to designated Mondays to give citizens fixed three-day weekends. Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February, ironically ensuring that it would never fall on his actual birthday. Since it was now within a week or so of Lincoln’s birthday, many businesses squashed the holidays together. And that’s why we’ll be enjoying Presidents’ Day, plural possessive, or Presidents Day, with no apostrophe, on Monday.

Let’s vs. Lets

Since the name of this blog is Let’s Just Be Clear, I figured I should start by highlighting a commonly confused pair of words: let’s and lets.

Let’s is a contraction of let us, an imperative phrase that people use to make or respond to suggestions. The apostrophe is there to indicate that some characters have been omitted (in this case, the space and the u).

Let’s go to the movies.
Let’s pretend we’re kangaroos.
Let’s eat breakfast food for dinner.

Lets is a verb that usually means allows or permits.

He lets his dog sit on the couch.
Jacob works hard all week, but on the weekends he lets it all hang out.
The judge lets criminals off easy.

I have a few tricks for figuring out whether to use let’s or lets. The first thing to check is where the word appears in the sentence. Let’s usually starts a sentence, and lets usually comes later, as in the examples above. This is not a foolproof test, though; there are exceptions both ways:

Don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves.
Lets his lawn grow for months without cutting it, does he? That’s not very neighborly.

Another test to try is to plug in let us and see if it works. I like to imagine it in my snobbiest accent:

Let us adjourn for the day.
Let us imagine we could start all over again.
X My roommate just let us the dishes pile up.

You can also try substituting allows [… to]:

✓ Some people handle rejection well, but Sophia allows it to get to her.
✓ Our boss allows us to leave early on most Fridays.
X “Should we get started?” “Yes, allows to.”

Whenever you are unsure of whether to use let’s or lets, try these tests, and you’ll probably quickly find the correct spelling.

Knowing when to throw in an apostrophe and when to leave it out is hard for many people, and I’ll address the broader issue and other examples in future blogs.

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