While reading a English Syntax book, I wondered how I have to read a', a'', a''' in English. Would you tell me how to?

  • 3
    I think most of us would like to see the context first. They might be pronounced a prime, a double prime, and a triple prime respectively, but that might not always be the answer.
    – J.R.
    Jun 11, 2013 at 14:19
  • McCawley's Syntactic Phenomena of English uses A, P, V for Adjective, Verb, Preposition, and A', P', V' for Adjective phrase, Verb phrase, Preposition phrase. It doesn't use the double- or triple-tick versions though, so I just think of them as A-tick, etc. Jun 11, 2013 at 14:57
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers McCawley says somewhere (a footnote to Ch. 1?) that A′, P′, ... X′ were originally notated with a bar over the character, Ā, &c, and that when the notation with the prime symbol was adopted for easier typesetting the expressions continued to be read A-bar, P-bar, &c. Hence X-bar theory. Jun 11, 2013 at 16:02
  • 1
    @StoneyB: I found it in my copy by looking up X-bar syntax in the index, which led me to the discussion in Ch7 footnote 7. McCawley says that in his approach "multiple bars make no sense" in respect of A,P,V - but as you say, he does use them when "numbering" his example usages. Jun 11, 2013 at 16:44
  • @FumbleFingers Yes - because lower-case a, b, c are not in his usage symbols of constituents, and the ticks are not 'bars'. Jun 11, 2013 at 16:52

2 Answers 2


I'm guessing that you are referring to McCawley's numbering system for example sentences:

(1) a.
   b. ... and so forth.

These are not actually English words but typographic symbols. Like the tree diagrams, they're not really intended to be spoken.

If you have to speak them, you may as J.R. suggests say a-prime, a-double-prime, etc. (which is a use borrowed from mathematics), or you may as FumbleFingers suggests say a-tick, etc. (but that is a British rather than US usage).

  • 1
    I'm British and I've never heard "a-tick". In mathematics, it would be either "prime" or "dash". (No, I don't know why "dash", when a dash is a completely different piece of punctuation.) Feb 17, 2014 at 8:38

I'm most familiar with it in mathematics, where they are used as related designations of a variable a (or more commonly x, y, or z). I have always read them a-prime, a-double-prime. Haven't really come across a‴ before, but a-triple-prime makes sense. Wikipedia begins with this entry for Prime (symbol):

The prime symbol ( ′ ), double prime symbol ( ″ ), and triple prime symbol ( ‴ ), etc., are used to designate several different units and for various other purposes in mathematics, the sciences, linguistics and music.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .