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I was having a discussion (read: argument) with a friend, and we were throwing around the same terms about rule interpretations that a lot of people use — RAW for rules as written, RAI for rules as interpreted, RAF for rules as fun, etc.

However, we got confused when referring to the acronyms. He said “the RAW tell us in this case that …”, using RAW as a plural noun, but I said “no, you’re wrong because the RAW tells us this …”, which uses RAW as a singular noun.

When we write it out, we both agree that (since it’s Rules as [whatever]), it should be “The Rules as Written say…” (plural). But as an acronym used by the Roleplaying Community at large, is it singular or plural, for the purpose of conjugating the verb?

I tagged this [dnd-5e] because that’s the specific rule set I’m looking for clarification on, and I’m specifically looking for either a commonly used convention or an official ruling, so either something that “everyone agrees on” or that was officially put out by the d&d5e designers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Belongs on English language stack exchange as it’s a question about language, nor RPGs. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Oct 10 at 3:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it belongs here, because it’s asking about a convention specifically related to rpgs and the terms we as an rpg community use. If I’m wrong about where it belongs, then please close it, but I thought that questions specifically about rpg terminology belonged here? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 3:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Questions about rpg terminology are something that we handle, when the question is rpg centric. This doesn’t seem to be the case here. This looks like a basic English language question that happens to concern a phrase common to RPGs. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 3:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ We handle questions about law because RPG experts have experience with laws as they pertain to RPGs. We can similarly handle a question about English. Furthermore, we already have countless questions thst effectively ask nothing more than "How do I interpret this English phrase". I voted to leave open \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 4:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Finally, an average English speaker (or the average English.SE user) does not know which phrase is actually used more commonly in practice. We can argue which should be used and give examples of other similar acronyms or debates on the word "data", but that isn't the RPG experience that this question is asking for from its answers \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 4:50
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“RAW” is an initialism referring to “rule[s]-as-written,” which as a concept comes from the phrase “rule[s], as written.” On some level, “properly speaking,” perhaps, at least in theory, it could be singular or plural, at least so long as it’s being used to abbreviate that phrase. Since the phrase “rule, as written” and “rules, as written” both have the initials RAW, and something like “RAWs” would be right out since “rule, as writtens” makes no sense. (But then, other examples exist of abbreviations being pluralized in this manner—e.g. “BAs” for “bachelors of arts”—exist. More on this later.)

To illustrate, here’s a pair of sentences going through a series of iterations where the phrase goes from “just a phrase” to more and more jargon-y:

The rule, as written, is that you go to 0 hp when you stop drowning.

The rules, as written, say that the unarmed strike is a simple weapon, Humanoids only have proficiency in the weapons listed by their class, and the monk class does not list the unarmed strike, so Humanoid monks aren’t proficient in them.

The rule-as-written is that you go to 0 hp when you start drowning.

The rules-as-written say that the unarmed strike is a simple weapon, Humanoids only have proficiency in the weapons listed by their class, and the monk class does not list the unarmed strike, so Humanoid monks aren’t proficient in them.

The RAW is that you go to 0 hp when you start drowning.

The RAW say that the unarmed strike is a simple weapon, Humanoids only have proficiency in the weapons listed by their class, and the monk class does not list the unarmed strike, so Humanoid monks aren’t proficient in them.

RAW, you go to 0 hp when you start drowning.

RAW, the unarmed strike is a simple weapon, Humanoids only have proficiency in the weapons listed by their class, and the monk class does not list the unarmed strike, so Humanoid monks aren’t proficient in them.

(These examples, by the way, come from famous RAW surprises in D&D 3.5e.)

In the last example, “RAW” is not used in the same grammatical sense as “rule, as written” but rather as a shorthand for “in the interpretation style known as RAW,” or something like that. At that point, in that sentence, it is no longer the subject and there’s nothing in the sentence that reflects its number, so we can’t even say if it’s singular or plural.

However, in writing these examples out, this example:

The RAW say that the unarmed strike is a simple weapon, Humanoids only have proficiency in the weapons listed by their class, and the monk class does not list the unarmed strike, so Humanoid monks aren’t proficient in them.

Simply felt wrong to me. I had to restrain myself from “fixing” it. My immediate—and surprisingly strong, given the context of this question and the purpose of the example—impulse here is that “RAW” should be singular. And I think that’s right—because at some point, “RAW” isn’t (just) an initialism for the phrase “rule[s] as written,” but rather a piece of jargon, a reference to a particular interpretation style. This is inescapable in the last iteration of these sentences but I think it already applies to the penultimate pair as well. And as the name of an interpretation style, “RAW” is always singular; there aren’t multiple different RAW styles (and indeed, the whole point of RAW is to have one fixed touchstone that is consistent and singular).

This is also why “RAW” is different from “BA.” Like “RAW” refers to a style of interpreting rules rather than “rules” per se, “BA” refers to a degree rather than the “bachelor” who has earned it. But there are many BA degrees out there, so it makes sense to refer to “BAs.” There are not multiple RAW styles out there, so “RAWs” does not. (Even “RAI” and “RAF” and “RAT” and “RAMS” and all the rest, which don’t have the same focus on singularity, probably still wouldn’t be referred to as multiples—that is, “RAF” may mean different things to different people but it’s still just one concept, the practice of attempting to read the rules to maximize “fun” even if that requires twisting the wording a bit.)

So ultimately, at some point, I think it’s not quite accurate to say that “RAW” simply means “rules as written” as an abbreviation. It stops behaving the same way as that phrase, and means more than that phrase does (at least literally), because it takes on our understanding of what it means to look at the rules through this particular lens that we call “RAW.” And what “RAW” actually refers to−when the object being discussed is not “rule” or “rules” but rather the interpretation style—is definitively singular.

But remember that there’s no central authority dictating the use of terms—for the English language in general, or RPG jargon in particular. It’s very, very hard to say much of anything is really “wrong,” per se, here. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen “RAWs” used, and I felt a strong urge to fix “RAW say” using “RAW” as a plural. But other speakers might find that natural. Ultimately, the only thing that’s important is that we each understand each other. In this case, then, I think the crucial thing is that everyone is familiar with what “RAW” refers to, in the sense of what it signifies about how we are looking at the rules that were written, including potentially aspects that might otherwise be considered absurd.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure you can rule out RAWs when BAs, MAs, and MOTs are in regular use \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 13:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 That’s reasonable enough, except I think that, 1. I’ve never seen that usage, and 2. by the time we get to “RAW” it feels to me that we have shifted the meaning of the term away from literally (and grammatically) “rule[s] as written” to something more like “the interpretation style known as rules-as-written.” In which case I can’t imagine any situation where you’d want or need a plural, since it’s just one style (and, in fact, the entire point of it is to avoid ambiguities caused by having multiple approaches to interpretation). “BA” et al. refer to the degree, of which there are many. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 10 at 13:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ It’s conceivable that RAWs could see some use, if only because RsAW didn’t catch on. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 13:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Discussed this more—I don’t think we will, because I think the meaning of “RAW” has shifted away from “rule[s]” per se, and more to “the concept of interpreting rules in a particular way,” and that concept is inherently singular. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 10 at 13:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Trish There are some users on the Giant in the Playground forum that have been trying to make it a thing, I believe, but as far as I know it hasn’t caught on elsewhere. For most people, I’d guess, that interpretation doesn’t need a name since it’s just the default. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 10 at 13:45

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