‘‘Verses’ versus ‘Versus’ and Other Tricky Terms in English Writing
The English language is complicated, and its development has resulted in many words that sound or look (occasionally both) very similar or even in some cases exactly the same, though they differ significantly in meaning, function and usage. A number of terms based on the Latin verb ‘vertere,’ meaning ‘to turn,’ or more precisely derived from that verb’s past participle, ‘versus,’ are among these tricky words, and since they are often used in academic and scientific writing, it is important to understand how to use them correctly and how to abbreviate them effectively as well. The following notes on these terms may therefore prove helpful. When more than one form of an abbreviation is provided, one should be chosen and used with consistency throughout a given document.
• The noun ‘verse’ and its plural ‘verses’ usually refer to poetry, though the precise referent can vary from the collective poetry of a certain nation (English verse) or style (Romantic verse) or poet (Milton’s verse) to a single stanza or even a single line or few feet of poetry. ‘Verse’ as a verb is an alternative to the verb ‘versify,’ so the meaning is ‘to express in verse.’ As an adjective, ‘verse’ means that something is written in poetic lines, as in ‘a verse essay.’ The noun is often abbreviated in references with a single ‘v.,’ and the letter is doubled for the plural form (vv.). Note that the abbreviation ‘v.’ is also used in references to legal cases to represent the word ‘versus,’ but since ‘verse’ is rarely used in legal studies, confusion is not usually a problem. If there is a possibility of confusion, it is best to write ‘verse’ out instead of abbreviating it.
• ‘Versus’ is a preposition in English usage. Literally, it means ‘against’ and appears between two alternatives, as it does between ‘Verses’ and ‘Versus’ in my heading for this posting. It can imply comparison, opposition and, in keeping with its Latin origins, a turning towards something. ‘Versus’ can be abbreviated in references and ancillary material, with the most common form being ‘vs.,’ which keeps the meaning distinct from the abbreviations for ‘verse’ and ‘verses.’ However, it is important to remember that a single ‘v.’ is the standard abbreviation for ‘versus’ between the names of parties in legal cases.
• The noun ‘verso’ is derived from ‘in verso folio,’ which means ‘on the turned leaf,’ and is used, particularly in printing and manuscript studies, when referring to the back or second page of a folio (the page to your left when a book is open before you). The plural form is ‘versos.’ ‘Verso’ is abbreviated with a single ‘v,’ but notice that the abbreviation is not usually followed by a full stop as it is when abbreviating ‘verse’ or the legal use of ‘versus.’ The ‘verso’ abbreviation is used primarily in references to manuscripts and early printed books and should appear immediately after the folio number without intervening space (fol.133v), sometimes in a superscript font (fol.133v). ‘Recto,’ on the other hand, means ‘on the right’ and is abbreviated with an ‘r.’ It is used to refer to the front or first page of a folio, which appears on the right side when a book lies open before a reader. Note that when ‘recto’ and ‘verso’ references are used, folio numbers should not be elided, but written out in full.
• ‘Vice versa’ is an adverb or adverbial phrase that means ‘conversely’ or ‘inversely’ and is used when the intention is that something be considered, stated or performed in the reverse order or the other way around from the way it was already stated or described. For example, in the question ‘Would you like to proofread the references before the main text or vice versa?’ the ‘or vice versa’ part of the sentence means ‘or would you like to proofread the main text before the references?’ The ‘versa’ element of the phrase is derived, as the terms above are, from the past participle ‘versus,’ but ‘vice’ is from the Latin noun ‘vicis,’ meaning ‘interchange’ or ‘alteration.’ The phrase is not used in an abbreviated form in scholarly prose.