Forming Plurals with ’s

By Maeve Maddox

This reader’s lament prompted the recent spate of apostrophe posts:

Could you please do a post on possessives versus plurals? I’m seeing this mistake more and more, to the point where I saw someone use an apostrophe for a plural on a billboard.

Because people are easily confused by the apostrophe, I have treated possession separately:

Now, I’ll focus on the reader’s main concern: the use of the apostrophe to form a plural.

Some English speakers associate the apostrophe so strongly with the letter s that they compulsively hurl it at every s that occurs at the end of a word. For example:

20 Craft Idea’s for Kid’s
Three Barber’s on Duty
My Cat Love’s Me
All Product’s Updated Frequently
Puppie’s For Sale
Open Sunday’s
Our Preschooler’s Can Read

In deference to another reader, who has asked me to supply corrected versions of cited errors, here are the correct forms:

20 Craft Ideas for Kids
Three Barbers on Duty
My Cat Loves Me
All Products Updated Frequently
Puppies For Sale
Open Sundays
Our Preschoolers Can Read

I wish that I could state the rule that one must never ever use an apostrophe to form a plural. All I can say is that one must almost never ever do so. Certainly, an apostrophe is never used to form the plural of an ordinary noun.

Someone who sports a bumper sticker that says, “Our preschooler’s can read” or letters a sign that says “Puppie’s for sale,” has a feeble understanding of how noun plurals are formed in English:

one preschooler, two preschoolers
one puppy, two puppies

Someone who embroiders “My cat love’s me” on a cushion has never learned the difference between nouns and verbs. Third person singular verbs in English end with s: He runs, she sings, it barks. Apostrophes are never used with verbs.

We can postulate a rule about words that end in s:

If a word ends in the letter s, don’t put an apostrophe anywhere near it, unless you wish to indicate possession.

So, when is it all right to form a plural with ’s?

Usually, the only time to use ’s to form a plural is when pluralizing letters and symbols like & and %. Authorities differ.

The Plural of Capital Letters
The Chicago Manual of Style states the rule that most capitals may be pluralized by adding s without an apostrophe and gives this example: “Children need to master the three Rs.”

The AP Stylebook, on the other hand, recommends using the apostrophe to form the plural of all capital letters and gives the example “the three R’s.”

The AP recommendation makes practical sense because some capital letters do require an apostrophe for clarity. Compare:

Your Ss, Is, and Us are illegible.
Your S’s, I’s, and U’s are illegible.

The Plural of Lowercase Letters
Lowercase letters require an apostrophe for clarity. Compare:

There are two is in liaison.
There are two i’s in liaison.

The Plural of Numerals
Numerals form their plurals by adding s only:

He bowled three 300s.
His parents grew up in the 1950s.

Both CMOS and AP agree that numerals may form the plural without an apostrophe.
OxfordDictionaries online does allow the use of the apostrophe to show the plurals of single numbers: “Find all the number 7’s.”

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (first published 1997), states that American usage calls for an apostrophe with a date and admonishes British speakers: “You should not adopt this practice unless you are specifically writing for an American audience.”

The use of an apostrophe with a pluralized date may once have been American practice, but now both the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook state that dates are pluralized without an apostrophe: “the 1950s.”

The trend globally is against the use of the apostrophe to form the plural of anything. Using an apostrophe to form the plural of a word, letter, symbol, or numeral is justified only if leaving it out would interfere with reading comprehension.

I’ve yet to exhaust the topic of apostrophe use, but this will have to do for now.

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10 Responses to “Forming Plurals with ’s”

  • opsimath

    Here in the UK, the misuse of apostrophes is rife. They are commonly called ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’ because, quite often, their hand-written signs will read something such as:

    New Seasons Plum’s £1 per pound.

    Strangely, it doesn’t seem to matter how many times this is discussed in newspapers, nothing ever seems to stem the flood. I was even in Oxford once, watching the rowers practising on the river, and saw a number of T-shirts proudly displaying the ‘Oxford Mens’ Rowing Club 1997′.

    So it would seem to be something that occurs right across the educational spectrum, from the grocer’s boy to the Oxbridge undergrad.

    It is high time we set up a ‘Save the Apostrophe’ petition!

    opsimath

  • Nancy

    Thanks for all of this, Maeve. I prefer the CMOS, and I avoid the apostrophe whenever it is not used to show possession. (Contractions are another matter, of course.)

    My solution to this:

    Your Ss, Is, and Us are illegible.
    Your S’s, I’s, and U’s are illegible.

    would be:

    Your letters S, I, and U are illegible.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    What about with initials used as nouns, such as M.P. (military policeman) or A.G. (attorney general)? Two M.P.s came and picked up the soldier from the stockade. Or would that be M.P.’s? Or, All seven of the A.G.s (or A.G.’s) involved in the lawsuit agreed to the proposal.

    In my fiction writing, which involves a lot of dialogue, I run into this all the time, and often it’s not practical to have someone use the full title of someone.

  • Nancy Romness

    Chuck, I see no need for an apostrophe in forming a plural of a noun made of initials. The capitalized initials are distinct from the lowercase “s.”

  • Jim Porter

    My problems began when, while in college, I took a course in computer programming, and this was long enough about when computers had no direct input. You had to input–still, I think, a horrible use of a word–by creating stacks of cards prepared on a keypunch machine.

    Part of computer programming was the use of mnemonics–using instructions that were parts of words. The word “input” might be spelled “nput.” Or the instruction for “part two” might be “prt2.” And, of course, there were no apostrophe usage in these mnemonics that I ever saw.

    That totally destroyed my spelling ability–I, a district spelling finalist in elementary school.

    So now, every time I use the possessive “its,” I have to look it up to see if I’m using it correctly.

  • thebluebird11

    @Chuck: I would personally dispense with the periods and make it MPs and so on. All the periods do is add clutter. I don’t know where you’re located, but stateside it seems to me there is a trend to eliminate periods. So we have MDs, VPs, USA and so forth. North Carolina is not N.C.; it is officially NC per the USPS. As a rule, if it’s NOT a possessive or a contraction, there is no apostrophe. If all you are doing is make something plural, there is generally no need for an apostrophe. Yes there are exceptions to this, and occasional times that apostrophes are needed, so when in doubt, consult your fave style guide. As an example, in the medical field doctors often speak of what sounds like “eyes and ohs,” but is really “I’s and O’s,” doc-speak for “intake and output,” to sum up how much solids and liquids a patient took in (by any route, over the course of whatever amount of time) and how much they put out (again, by any route, over the course of that same amount of time). In this case, it would be confusing to write of “Is and Os,” so although these are neither possessives nor contractions, we are required, by company style guide, to use apostrophes.

  • venqax

    I would ask when pluralizing lower case letters is needed or even preferable. It avoids some, though not all, confusion issues if letters referred to are always capitalized. So, “There are two Ls in liaison”, not “there are two ls in liaison” which is unnecessarily confusing. Of course in the examples given, “There are two is in liaison” vs
    “There are two Is in liaison” it doesn’t completely solve the problem, but still, capitalizing the I makes it clearer, I think. As, Is and Us cause a bit of a double-take, but otherwise I think consistency and not using an apostrophe is preferable.

  • venqax

    @Nancy: My solution to this:
    Your Ss, Is, and Us are illegible.
    Your S’s, I’s, and U’s are illegible.
    would be:
    Your letters S, I, and U are illegible.

    Yes, but that is just avoiding the problem, not solving it. You can almost always rewrite something so that an issue does not arise. But the question of what IS the right answer is an important one. Think of spelling: You can always just use a different word if you’re not sure how to spell something. But the question of how is that first word spelled has an answer.

  • Maeve

    Venqax, Nancy,
    Nancy has a point: rewriting to avoid the problem is an option.

    Looking for one right answer for this pickle seems a futile quest. Apart from a relatively small number of words like judgment/judgement and theater/theatre, the correct spelling of a word is easily agreed on by most English speakers.

    In the case of punctuation, especially apostrophe use, a universally acceptable right answer is more elusive. I think the best one can hope to do in the case of pluralizing letters is to be guided by CMOS or AP or some other recognized style guide and one’s own best judgment as to what is instantly readable.

  • JanT

    I had the rules of apostrophe drummed into me by my English teacher partner who would never allow non-possessive apostrophes in any circumstances.

    How about:
    Your “S”s, “I”s and “U”s are illegible.

    It’s ugly I know. Does it breach some rule for using quote marks?

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