Funny, but it’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (small)

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (small) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been tweeting in lieu of blogging lately, but sometimes a matter deserves more attention than a string of related tweets. Such is the case with “rock ‘n’ roll.” Dictionaries and style guides differ on how to write a colloquial expression written informally for 60 years or more. “Rock and roll” seems fine and formal, but “rock ‘n’ roll” appears to be the more common form.

Even in the 1950s, it was rendered as “rock ‘n’ roll” as often or more often than “rock and roll,” according to Google Books data. Take a look here:

The Associated Press Stylebook prefers “rock ‘n’ roll,” but points out that it’s the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The New York Times agrees with “rock ‘n’ roll,” as does Yahoo! and the Better Homes and Gardens style guide (everyone seems to have an opinion). Style for Britain’s Guardian newspaper is rock’n’roll, no spaces. National Geographic says “rock-and-roll.”

The American Heritage Dictionary gives “rock-and-roll” as its first spelling. Merriam-Webster Unabridged calls “rock and roll” a variant of “rock ‘n’ roll.” Merriam-Webster Collegiate calls “rock ‘n’ roll” a variant of “rock and roll.” [Update: see comments]

The Oxford English Dictionary has “rock and roll” references going back to 1939, but that was something else. As with many good phrases, the better use came later. Early references from the 1950s in the OED vary, and include the spelling  “rock ‘n roll” on an early (jazz) album sleeve. But let’s agree to avoid that; the second apostrophe serves a purpose.

Chicago Manual of Style suggests we make sure the first apostrophe in rock ‘n’ roll is truly an apostrophe and not a single open quote mark.

I remember copy editing a syndicated Dave Barry column that started with a note to editors. Not a note intended for publication, but an appeal to editors to keep his spelling, which I think was “rock and roll.” But there’s probably at least a 70 percent chance that I’m wrong on this.

Last word (for now) goes to Bryan A. Garner, who offers no clear advice other than the suggestion that “rock” has become so common, we probably don’t need to worry so much.

I may return to this post another day, so I’m happy to hear your insight into this important topic.


13 thoughts on “Funny, but it’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me

  1. I dislike “rock and roll” for a couple of reasons. First, it can look really messy in certain line breaks, possibly causing the reader to stumble, like this:

    Without Les Paul and Leo Fender, there would be no rock
    and roll or country as we know them.

    It can also cause trouble if it’s only one of several musical styles mentioned, as you may find you have an “and” pile-up on your hands:

    She still likes folk music but mostly listens to rock and roll and country.

    A Harvard comma after “roll” there would be fussy beyond all credibility, and would also suggest that “and country” was a mere afterthought, which may not have been the writer’s intention at all.

    So, “rock ‘n’ roll” it has to be for me. (Although it’s important, as Chicago warns, to make sure the abbreviation is marked with proper apostrophes and not a pair of single quote marks.)

  2. The latest print version of the AP Stylebook does use “rock ‘n’ roll,” with the “n” enclosed in single quotation marks. I submitted an ask-the-editor question about it and was told this does not represent a style change. It was just a smart quote issue that will have to be corrected in a later book. AP style is still “rock (apostrophe)n(apostrophe) roll.” That said, the prevalence of smart quotes makes it almost impossible to be consistent about this. This blogging software, for example, automatically renders the apostrophe before the “n” as an open quote mark. Sigh.

  3. When I wrote the post, I was careful to check the apostrophes before the “n,” but now I see they were altered when I published the post. Perhaps they weren’t altered, but they simply didn’t show as smart apostrophes when I created them. Interesting that the AP Stylebook fell victim to this, given the attention to proofreading they must devote. I use AP Stylebook online, and the apostrophes are vertical on the website.

    Thanks, Laura.

  4. It seems that all my apostrophes before “n” have been changed to open single quote marks, and no finagling in editing view can change that. A pox on word-processing programs that crush us with “helpful” automation. I imagine there is a workaround, but I have better things to do than find it, such as looking up “rock n’ roll” in a few more dictionaries.

  5. I thought this was interesting, as I find comments from editors about the vast land of English usually are interesting. But the thing that tripped my trigger, especially for ebook writers is the reference to the “Chicago Manual of Style suggests we make sure the first apostrophe in rock ‘n’ roll is truly an apostrophe and not a single open quote mark.

    I am beginner with English but references to things called printer marks, as I would describe them, if I may; but the need for marks not represented on the keyboard bothers me. In the days of author, editor, agent, publisher I’m sure that these corrections would be achieved.

    In the day of ebooks with writers and their keyboards getting to marks that are not represented on the keyboard seems problematic. Like the expression of the subject “rock ‘n’ roll”, usage seems to be the driving force, the key determinate. Would it be reasonable to conclude that with increasing use of keyboard characters will limit compliance with these finer points.

    I realize from days gone by that I can produce many ASCII based characters by use of the Alternate key with the numeric keypad, such as the copyright mark.

  6. I’m 20 years old, so I obviously wasn’t around when rock ‘n’ roll began; however, I know exactly what someone means when they just say “rock” (in terms of music, of course).

    I have to ask, as a college student, why can’t I just use “rock” versus “rock ‘n’ roll”?

  7. Yeah, but the first mark before the n should be an apostrophe, facing left, not an opening single quote mark. Be careful because many computers do this automatically.

  8. Pingback: “My Friend George” | uncomelyandbroken

  9. Personally, I am not a fan of the “smart” punctuation as it often leads to mistakes that were not made on the part of the writer. Because the “n” in between “rock” and “roll” is mission both the a- and the -d in “and,” this proves to be a difficult to word to punctuate if one is not careful. This was a great post about the many marks assigned to the genre, from apostrophe to ampersand.

  10. I’m a bit wistful about this update: Merriam-Webster has fixed the disconnect between the Collegiate and Unabridged so they are no longer at odds with each other. Both versions of the dictionary give “rock and roll” as the main entry with “rock ‘n’ roll” the accepted variant.

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