The Grammarphobia Blog

A theological dispute

Q: My boss, the dean of a theological college, recently wrote a letter in which he referred to a “Master’s graduate” and an award for “excellency in Liturgy.” I thought he should have said “Masters’ graduate” and “excellence in Liturgy,” but the dean disagreed. We bickered over this for a while, and I offered to write you about it.

A: Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) include the phrase “master’s degree” as well as the word “master’s” (as a noun meaning “a master’s degree”). Both dictionaries use the apostrophe and lowercase this usage, though M-W notes that the designations “master of science” and “master of arts” and so on are “often cap.”

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) also uses the apostrophe and lowercases the generic degrees: “a master’s degree” (section 8.32). But Chicago capitalizes the specific degrees, like “Master of Arts” and so on (section 15.21).

Since all three references (M-W, American Heritage, and Chicago) use “master’s” in an adjectival way, I would say their style calls for a “master’s graduate” (lowercase “m”).

The usual noun form of the adjective “excellent” is “excellence,” which means the quality of being excellent. “Excellency” is most often seen as a title given to dignitaries like ambassadors and such, although it is occasionally used as a synonym for “excellence.” Given a choice, I’d go for “excellence in liturgy.”

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