Some day in the not-too-distant future, the people who write manuals like the Associated Press Stylebook, the University of Oxford Style Guide, the MLA Handbook, and the Chicago Manual of Style are going to have to grapple with the UFO issue. Until then, however, those of us at Trail of the Saucers are going to have a go of it.
Since the trend line is toward more open discussion and writing about the mysteries that Unidentified Flying Objects represent, the time is right to see if we can get some consensus about how to express ourselves in a standard way when we write about this phenomenon in public and in the media. It’s not the intent of this article to be dogmatic about it, but to at least start the conversation.
The Most Common Mistake
Let’s start with the basics. UFO is an abbreviation for Unidentified Flying Object.
That also means that UFO is singular, just like Unidentified Flying Object, or flying saucer. If you’re talking about multiple objects or saucers, you’re talking about Unidentified Flying Objects or flying saucers.
According to the Associated Press Stylebook, 55th Edition, the entire subject ranks only these parallel mentions:
- unidentified flying object(s) UFO and UFOs are acceptable in all references.
- UFO, UFOs Acceptable in all references for unidentified flying object(s).
While this ought to settle the issue, writers, particularly in a world of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, have their own ways of doing things. And one of the things that a lot of them are doing in social media posts have grammarians slapping their foreheads as much as seeing “it’s” when the writer means “its.”
In the sub-set of writing that Ufology is rapidly becoming, the one vexing piece of grammar that is regularly misused is the use of “UFO’s” when writers actually mean “UFOs.”
Writers often use an apostrophe even if it is easier and one less keystroke to do without it, but what they almost always really mean is that there were multiple objects. In that case, the correct way to talk about more than one Unidentifed Flying Object is to write “UFOs” to stand for Unidentified Flying Objects.
- “UFO’s” is a possessive. It can be used, but only under very specific circumstances.
Example: “The UFO’s metallic surface glistened in the harsh light of day.”
- On the other hand, when you’re talking about multiple objects flying about, you are talking about “UFOs.”
Example: “UFOs of all shapes and sizes were seen in the sky that night.”
UFO’s, with an apostrophe, is never plural. If you want the plural, then it’s UFOs whether you think that looks right or not. End of story.
I pointed this out to someone on Twitter last week and many rallied angrily to the defense of the person who wrote “UFO’s” all over their feed, saying it was a matter of personal style and I should shut the F up with my unwanted opinions. The person who made the posts even noted how proud they were to have their own style.
So, yes, this might be a sensitive subject, but the journalist in me says if there ever was a time to set this matter on the right course, it’s now. After all, we are on the cusp of an official governmental report and news coverage about it. Let’s make sure journalists (and, yes, even activists at #ufotwitter) get this right.
The Plot Thickens
All of which brings us to the even thornier subject of UAP, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. Because of the public and media ridicule sometimes associated with the topic, and the fact that some of these craft appear to be in both water and sky, some folks now prefer to use this term instead.
Last year, here at Trail of the Saucers, we conducted a poll of our readers, gathering over 800 votes over a week long period. Those people preferred the good old-fashioned UFO term by a better than two-to-one margin, 72% for UFO and 28% for UAP.
While that hardly rises to the level of scientific polling, it really doesn’t matter because UAP has been embraced by politicians, journalists and scientists, all of whom feel it gives them a way to discuss the subject without being made fun of.
The people who insisted that we start using UAP in place of UFO, however, have done the English language no favor. It takes an already tense and tricky subject in the age of Internet writing and adds a new layer of complexity because the phenomena/phenomenon duality is one of those exceptional exceptions.
Borrowed from Greek, the English word phenomenon is the most common singular form and phenomena is the most common plural form. Grammar Girl offers this Quick and Dirty Tip: To help you remember that “phenomenon” is the singular form of the word, remember that the singular form has an O near the end — in that “non” syllable — just like the word “one.” One. Singular.
Bottom line, as used by journalists and government report writers, UAP refers to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (with an “a” and plural).
So you should probably say, “UAP (think UFOs, plural) are a big mystery,” and not, “UAP is a big mystery.”
Director James Fox, however, can refer to the overall issue and call his film the singular, “The Phenomenon.”
UFOs = UAP
Does this mean that UFO ≠ UAP?
Only technically. Most people, when they hear Unidentified Aerial Phenomena think of it as plural, but when they hear UAP, they think of it as one thing, for lack of a better term, as a reference to an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon whether that’s correct use or not.
In this situation, it doesn’t really matter how you want to parse the two words the Greeks gave us, phenomena and phenomenon. In standard, 2020s use today, most people think that UAP is both singular and plural, depending on how you use it.
Example: “The UAP sped off to the West, then plunged directly into the ocean.” (People are apt to say this when referring to a single craft or multiple craft.)
Example: “The UAP report is due in June and the issue is not going away.” (People are apt to use this to refer to the entire phenomenon dealing with unidentified aircraft.)
The crossing of the grammatical line in the sand, however, would clearly be, “There were UAPs all over the sky last night.” If you’re going to talk about a lot of UAP craft in the sky, you do not need to put an “s” behind it.
To beat the horse or the alien deader still, there is no reason at all to talk about “UAP’s.” If writers insist on their right to do so, however, the same rule applies as does between “UFOs” and “UFO’s.”
First, used as a plural is no apostrophe:
Example: “The UAPs being reported include more than just Tic-Tacs.”
Next, to have an apostrophe, it should be used as a possessive:
Example: “The UAP’s shape was described as being elongated.”
Let’s just say that the new report being written by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has probably already hit this snag. However they resolve the issue(s) may just become the standard for the future. We wish them good luck and godspeed.
The truth of the matter here is that UFO, from a grammatical POV, cleans up better in the public square than UAP does. Not that it matters. The English language is quite adept at incorporating new styles, words and ideas, and this may just be the latest example.
Given that given, let’s agree on one thing if we can.
Lose the Apostrophe
Nine times out of ten when you see “UFO’s” with an apostrophe, it’s wrong because the user is talking about numbers and not possession. Same with “UAP’s” (which is not a thing).
We have enough to worry about wondering who’s flying these UFOs, let alone who’s piloting all the various UAP up in the sky and the seas.
There are apparently lots of unknowns out there today. When we write about more than one of them at the same time, lose the apostrophe.
It’s cleaner, simpler, more direct, and correct. With one less keystroke than the incorrect version, it’s even more Internet friendly.
Of course, I could be missing something here. Your comments and corrections are welcome and, as they come in, I’ll update the article.