Get ready to write about the Olympics

Sandeep Prasanna, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #329


Olympics season is nearly upon us. Athletes in more than 150 countries are preparing for some of the most significant moments of their careers. As representatives of their home nations, these athletes will find their competitions framed in epic, international proportions: The United States versus Australia. China versus South Africa. Canada versus the United Kingdom.

That’s fine—but sometimes writing out the word “versus” is too cumbersome. So how can we abbreviate it and when should we capitalize it?

Origins and Use

We use “versus” to indicate that two entities are opposed to each other—for example, in a courtroom or in sports. The origin of “versus” is simple: it comes from Latin and it means “against.” It’s a preposition, just like the words “above” and “over.”

“Versus” probably became common in English through its use in the law, where, as you will learn below, it is used to separate opposing legal parties. English law, which forms the basis for most American law, Irish law, and the law of Commonwealth countries, inherited many integral legal concepts from the Normans, who spoke a Romance language related to French. (English did not descend directly from Latin, but Norman did.) This Romance influence, coupled with pervasive religious use of Latin and the complex, multicultural origins of English law, helped ensure that Latin words and phrases would live on in the law. The use of “versus” in English law may be a consequence of this cultural interaction. Other well-known examples of Latin phrases used in the law are “habeas corpus,” “pro bono,” and “mens rea.” Lawyers and judges will often use common Latin words and phrases without a translation, so it may be useful to learn a few of them if you are reading or writing law-related works.

Capitalizing Prepositions in Titles

You might have noticed that Grammar Girl posts often use the word “versus” in their titles, such as “I.e. Versus E.g.” and “Affect Versus Effect.”

In an older episode, you learned that there are a lot of different ways to treat words in titles. The words you capitalize are a matter of style. We use a style that says to capitalize prepositions with more than four letters, so we capitalize “versus” when it appears in a title. However, other styles say to keep all prepositions lowercase in titles, so on other sites that use other styles, you may see “versus” in lowercase.

Abbreviating “Versus”

So, how about when you want to abbreviate “versus”? The only time you should use “v.” as an abbreviation [for “versus”] is in legal contexts. In American law, the widely used citation standard is the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, which demands that opposing legal parties be separated by “v.” when referring to a particular case. This usage is also used by the news media and other writers when referring to legal cases.

The names of the opposing parties are usually shortened to one person’s last name, the shortened form of a governmental body, or the shortened form of an institutional or corporate name. The Bluebook has very specific rules for abbreviating party names, so you may want to follow the lead of other publications (or your particular house style) if you don’t have access to a copy of the Bluebook. It’s also a matter of style whether the case name is italicized.

  • McCulloch v. Maryland.
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Kansas.
  • Squiggly v. Aardvark. (Squiggly, it seems, is quite litigious.)

In British law, “v” without the period is the standard. This is also often the standard in countries whose dialect of English is substantially drawn from British English--for example, in Commonwealth nations like Australia and South Africa. Different countries and different publications may vary in their style preferences, though, so remember to check what is standard in your area.

  • Regina v Dudley.
  • Aardvark v Squiggly. (Aardvark countersues in a British court. The plot thickens.)

In other contexts, “vs.” (American English) or “vs” (British English) can be used as an abbreviation.  This usage is more casual than writing out “versus.”

  • Obama vs. Romney. (American English)
  • Labour Party vs Conservative Party. (British English)

If you're unsure what’s appropriate, just write it out—using the full word “versus” is rarely inappropriate, except perhaps in formal legal contexts.

One of the most anticipated games in college basketball, Duke versus North Carolina, is airing tonight.

Alternatively, just phrase the idea differently.

Duke will be playing against North Carolina tonight. It is one of the most anticipated games in college basketball.

So as you switch on the television next week and turn to the Olympics, remember: It can be France vs. Germany or Argentina versus Mexico, but unless you're in a court of international law, it won't be Ghana v. Italy.


As an aside, we also wrote previously on the curious appearance of “versing” as a verb form of “versus”—as in, “He's versing her in Mario Kart and losing miserably,” and “We’re versing Lake Forest Park in softball this afternoon.” It’s most common among kids, and it’s a non-standard use of “versus,” so proceed with caution. You can read more about it in Grammar Girl episode 309.

This podcast was written by Sandeep Prasanna, who blogs about linguistics at thediacritics.com. Check out his site.

Source: Garner’s Modern American Usage


Olympic Rings Vancouver image, adrian8_8 at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.