Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Are Wisdom Teeth Smart? Capitalizing Degree Names. Sussies 2

Episode Summary

878. This week, we look at what makes wisdom teeth so smart, how to properly write the name of your degree, and what's up with the "sussies" familect?

Episode Notes

878. This week, we look at what makes wisdom teeth so smart, how to properly write the name of your degree, and what's up with the "sussies" familect?


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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff.

Today, we’ll talk about where wisdom teeth get their name, and since it's graduation season we'll talk about when to capitalize the names of your degrees. Let's get started.

Wisdom teeth

by Brenda Thomas

According to "Gray’s Anatomy" (the medical book spelled G-r-a-y, not the television show spelled G-r-e-y), the third molars are called wisdom teeth because of how old people are when those teeth usually appear. For many people, their wisdom teeth show up on dental X-rays or start breaking through the gums in their late teens or early twenties. The emergence of those teeth at such a late age is the basis for the idiom "cut your wisdom teeth" that was commonly used in the 1800s to refer to having reached the age of discretion or wisdom.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer first published his "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" in London in 1870, in which the explanation for the idiom "cut your wisdom teeth" was as follows: "Wisdom teeth are those at the extreme end of the jaws, which do not make their appearance till persons have come to years of discretion. When persons say or do silly things, the remark is made to them that 'they have not yet cut their wisdom teeth,' or reached the years of discretion."

Brewer was an ordained minister and son of a schoolmaster who, after graduating from Trinity Hall of Cambridge, taught at his father's school in Norwich, England. Brewer's teaching extended beyond the classroom through his writing. He wrote many instructional and fact-filled books, his first of which was "A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar" published around 1840. Some of the other books he wrote were "Errors of Speech and of Spelling," "Rules for English Spelling," and "The Historic Note-book."

In the preface to his dictionary, Brewer explained that he wanted to tell the tales of words and phrases: "where they come from, how they became naturalised, and what they refer to." According to Brewer, his dictionary contained "curious or novel etymologies, pseudonyms and popular titles, local traditions and literary blunders, biographical and historical trifles too insignificant to find … in books of higher pretension, but not too worthless to be worth knowing." The first edition of Brewer's dictionary contained around 20,000 entries of words and phrases along with their accompanying fables or lore.

At least two other ministers in England published books of proverbial sayings and used the "cut your wisdom teeth" idiom in a way that accorded with Brewer's definition. Walter Mathams, in his 1880-published "Bristles for Brooms," wrote "Cut your wisdom teeth as early as you can, and ever after let the world see that you have cut them." Similarly, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, in his 1889-published book "The Salt-Cellars," admonished young people to "Cut your wisdom teeth as early as you can. Have as little as possible sown in the field of folly, for it is bad harvesting. He is wise truly who is wise early."

However, folklore, being what it is, tends to be different in other areas, such as what was heard in and around Quincy, Illinois, in the 1800s and published in "Folk-lore from Adams County Illinois" in 1935. In that region, wisdom teeth lore was that people who cut those molars early would die young, those who cut them late would live a long life, and one's life was half over when they cut their wisdom teeth. And people could not gain any knowledge or wisdom until they cut their wisdom teeth.

Regardless of the folklore about wisdom teeth, the age at which those third molars appear does not tell us how long people will live. Also, those late-emerging teeth do not affect how wise people are or how much they know.

Amazingly, Brewer's dictionary is still in print with its 20th edition published in 2018. In that latest edition, the idiom "to cut one's wisdom teeth" is defined as reaching "the years of discretion" and the entry for "wisdom tooth" says, "Wisdom teeth usually appear between the ages of 17 and 25, hence the name from an association with years of discretion."

To "cut your wisdom" teeth is an idiom that might have fallen out of common use now that many people have those molars surgically removed before they break through the gums. However, the good news is that people without wisdom teeth can still behave wisely. The presence of wisdom teeth does not guarantee that people will be wise, rather than foolish, but those teeth usually appear at an age when people are expected to no longer behave like children, but instead be mature, wise, and act with discretion, and that's the origin of the phrase.

That segment was written by Brenda Thomas, a freelance writer and online educator.

When to Capitalize Degree Names

by Heather E. Saunders

It’s graduation time again, so we thought it would be a good time to talk about how you should write out the names of your degrees. Whether you’re bragging on social media or including it in a job application, you want to get it right!

Academic degrees tell us what level of study a person has completed and often in what field or specialization. In its most basic form, a degree name will include only the level of study achieved — bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, for example. But it can also include a major and a minor, as well as any emphases, academic distinctions, and honors.

Different style guides make different recommendations about how to capitalize and style degree names, but in general, the best practice is to capitalize terms only when using specific degree names and proper nouns.

Let’s take a closer look.

Degree names

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends not capitalizing degree names when you’re just using them generally and recommends capitalizing them when you’re referring to a specific, formal degree. General terms for a degree include the level of study, they are often accompanied by an article or pronoun such as “a” or “her,” and they can include the word “degree” itself. For example, you should use lowercase for the degree name in all these examples:

Squiggly just got an associate degree, but Aardvark is still studying for his bachelor’s degree. Aardvark hopes to get a master’s degree next, but he’s not sure he wants to go so far as to get a doctoral degree. All those were lowercase.

When using a specific, formal degree name, though, all parts of the name are capitalized. For example, you capitalize “Associate of Arts,” “Bachelor of Science,” “Master of Business Administration,” and “Doctor of Philosophy.”

But if you’re adding the field of study after the degree name, that part is lowercase — whether it’s a major, minor, or emphasis — unless it’s a proper noun. For example, if you write that Aardvark got a Master of Science in fishery studies, and Squiggly got his associate degree in chocolate making, “Master of Science,” is capitalized, but “associate degree,” “fishery studies” and “chocolate making” are all lowercase.

The Chicago Manual of Style guidance might be easier to remember: set all parts of all degree names lowercase unless the degree includes a proper noun or you are using the degree like a title.

For example, you would use all lowercase for both Aardvark’s master of science in fishery studies and Squiggly’s associate degree in chocolate making. But if Squiggly earned a bachelor’s degree in French so he could study truffle making in Paris, the word “French” in his degree would always be capitalized.

In Chicago guidance, if the degree is being used like a title — such as in a list or directory or on a business card or resume — the degree name can be capitalized. So we would capitalize “Master of Science” on Aardvark’s business card. Because Chicago doesn’t offer specific guidance on capitalizing a major, minor, or emphasis, these can be capital or lowercase, but since they recommend lowercase for other parts of the degree, we'd go with lowercase. It's up to you. Just remember to be consistent!

Degree honors

Many colleges and universities in the U.S. award Latin honors with bachelor’s degrees and doctor of law degrees. There are three levels of distinction for these honors: cum laude, meaning “with praise”; magna cum laude, which is “with great praise”; and summa cum laude, which is “with highest praise.”

When including Latin honors, set them lowercase and after the full degree, including after any majors and minors. If Squiggly worked his tail off, he could boast about earning his master of arts in French, summa cum laude. The AP Stylebook and Chicago both recommend not italicizing honors even though they’re made up of Latin words.

Degree abbreviations

When degree names have to be shortened, the abbreviation will use either only capital letters or a mix of both, depending on the established abbreviation for that degree. Some of the most common abbreviations use only capital letters. For example, a Bachelor of Arts is a “BA,” a Master of Fine Arts is an “MFA,” and a Master of Business Administration is an “MBA,” all with each letter capitalized.

Other degree abbreviations use both capital and lowercase letters, including the most well-known graduate degree: the Doctor of Philosophy, which is abbreviated using a capital “P,” lowercase “h,” and capital “D.” “PhD.” The Doctor of Psychology, Master of Engineering, and Doctor of Ministry are other degrees that use a mix of capital and lowercase letters when abbreviated.

When you’re using these abbreviations with a name, put them after the name and set them off with commas. Whether you include periods or not is completely a style choice: Chicago recommends omitting periods unless specifically required by tradition or established style, and AP style recommends using periods.

What’s in a name?

Because there are many options on what to include in a degree name and how to style it, sometimes it might feel overwhelming. Even whether to include the word “degree” can give us pause. Many of us have heard the phrase “bachelor of arts degree” just as often as “bachelor’s degree” or “Bachelor of Arts.” The AP Stylebook recommends removing the word “degree” when you’re using the full degree name and including it when using the degree generally. So you’d use “Bachelor of Arts” or a “bachelor’s degree in art,” but not “bachelor’s in art.” However, most style guides don’t even weigh in on this. And although there isn’t much style guidance on including the word “degree” in the full name, it is redundant and therefore not necessary.

There’s also confusion about the term “associate degree” and it’s easy to see why. The general terms for bachelor’s and master’s degrees use an apostrophe “s,” which is the possessive form. Because of this, it’s understandable to expect that the possessive form would be used here too. In fact, both “associate degree” and “associate’s degree” (with an apostrophe) are widely used. The AP Stylebook recommends “associate degree,” but Merriam-Webster and Wordnik both include entries for the possessive form. According to a Google Ngram, “associate degree” was used much more frequently from the 1980s to the 2000s. But since 2013, “associate’s degree,” the possessive form, has been used nearly as often. The Chicago Manual of Style FAQ says both terms are “reasonable and logical” and allows for both. So unless you’re using AP style, whether you use the possessive form for “associate degree” is a style choice.

Another degree name to pay close attention to is the doctorate. “Doctorate” is the degree name, just like “master’s degree.” “Doctoral” is an adjective related to a doctor or doctorate. The word “doctor” and the degree designation make up the formal name. For example, if Squiggly wanted to earn a Doctor of Food Science, he could complete doctoral study to earn his doctorate.

As often is the case with style guidance, consistency is the key. In general, the best practice is to capitalize terms only when you’re using specific degree names and proper nouns and to avoid redundancy.

That segment was written by Heather E. Saunders, the co-owner of Nova Arc Content Co. She has more than 15 years of experience as a technical editor, writer, and proofreader specializing in the STEM, medical, and aerospace and defense sectors. You can find her at and on Twitter as @h_e_saunders.


Finally, I have a familect story from Amanda.

"Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Amanda. I've been listening to your podcast forever, and I was listening to one of the most recent ones with the familect at the end about sussies, and my jaw dropped because that was something we say in my family! That woman is not alone. So I'm not sure where it originated. I think my mother actually got it from a family friend who used to say it, but we've always said it in relation to a surprise for no reason. So like my mom would say, 'I got you a sussie today.’ You know, and it's not a birthday or holiday. And we've been using that in my family ever since I can remember, and I've taught it to many of my friends and significant others over the years, and everyone always thinks it is adorable, but no one else has ever heard of it before. I am so excited there is another person out there. Thanks."

Wow, thanks, Amanda! That's amazing. I've never heard "sussies" before, but I bet Melissa, the other caller, will be excited to hear that your family uses it too.

If you want to call with the story of your familect, a word your family and only your family uses, “familect” is a blend of the words “family” and “dialect,” you can leave a voicemail at 83-321-4-GIRL. Call from a nice, quiet place, and I might play it on the show.

I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl.

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That’s all. Thanks for listening.