Q: I’m a teaching assistant and the expression “mind your p’s and q’s” came up in my fourth-grade class. The students wondered about the phrase’s origin and what the p’s and q’s represent. Can you be of some assistance?
A: There are a number of theories about the origin of the expression, but there’s no solid evidence to back up any of them. The two most likely, in my opinion, are these:
(1) It refers to the actual letters “p” and “q,” and it was a reminder to children who were learning the alphabet to keep those letters straight.
(2) It refers to the pints and quarts on a tavern patron’s tab, and it was a reminder to bartenders to be accurate when keeping track. (Yes, beer and ale and such were indeed consumed by the pints and quarts in 18th-century England!)
The first published reference to the expression dates from 1779, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was in the farce Who’s the Dupe? by the English playwright Hannah Cowley.
I was so pleased to get this question! My new children’s grammar book, Woe Is I Jr., which is coming out in May, includes an example that uses the expression “mind your p’s and q’s.” (It’s in a section on the plurals of individual letters like “p” and “q”). My husband wondered whether students in the fourth to the sixth grade would be familiar with that phrase. Now I know that at least some of them are!
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