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: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=rock+and+roll%2Crock++%27n%27+roll&year_start=1950&year_end=1980&corpus=0&smoothing=3
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.