Plurals and Apostrophes (Mostly) Don’t Mix

By Mark Nichol

The apostrophe has three functions: To help indicate possession (boy’s), to mark contraction (it’s), and to convert a singular letter, number, or initialism to a plural. However, the mark has all but been relieved of duty in its third task.

One of the few categories in which apostrophes are still retained for plural usage is when plurals of letters are concerned. In expressing how many times a letter appears in a word, for example, one would write “There are five e’s in beekeeper”; it would be distracting to write “There are five es in beekeeper.” This style also applies to the expressions “Mind your p’s and q’s” and “Dot the i’s and cross the t’s.” (Note, however, that in these idiomatic uses, contrary to the previous example, the letters are not italicized to indicate that they are being employed to refer to themselves.)

However, legibility is not a concern when uppercase letters are concerned: No apostrophes are necessary in “She received three As, two Bs, and one C on her report card.” (Note that names of letter grades are not italicized.) But to avoid confusion, don’t start a sentence with “As” or “Is” to refer to more than one uppercase letter; the resemblance to the words As and Is will distract readers.

If plurals of both uppercase and lowercase letters are listed in reference to the alphabet, though, be consistent: “The T’s and r’s in his first signature differ from those in the second one.”

Apostrophes are unnecessary when referring to plurals of numbers. For example, the treatment of the number in “I printed three 5s on a piece of paper” is correct, though when one is referring to any other use of the number than the numeral itself, it is better to spell out the word for the number: “She gave him change in the form of three fives.”

When pluralizing a year, omit the apostrophe: “They came of age in the 1990s.” Use the mark with numbers only to indicate the possessive case, as in “Check out this list of 1990’s biggest hits” — “Check out this list of the biggest hits of 1990” would be better — or to truncate a designation of a decade, as in “They came of age in the ’90s.”

Until relatively late in the twentieth century, inserting periods after each letter in an initialism was customary (“F.B.I.”). Because placing a plural s immediately after the final period would be awkward (“It was as if there were two F.B.I.s”), an apostrophe was customarily inserted before the s (“It was as if there were two F.B.I.’s”) — not an ideal solution, but better than the alternative.

However, now that these periods are almost universally considered obsolete (a few publications, most notably the New York Times, are holdouts), the apostrophe is superfluous and considered incorrect: “It was as if there were two FBIs.” (The Times, for the record, omits periods in acronyms, a series of letters that, unlike initialisms, are pronounced as words.)

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4 Responses to “Plurals and Apostrophes (Mostly) Don’t Mix”

  • Brian

    Thanks for this post. I’m convinced that we’re in the midst of an apostrophe catastrophe; it seems that many writers are convinced that the apostrophe is nothing more than a warning that an “s” is coming. 😉

    Truly, your explanation–even with its variants–is clear, concise and helpful. Thanks for that!

  • Sally

    I never use apostrophes with letters – capitals make the point in every context.

    And ‘American’ publications still consistently abbreviate “United States” as U.S. rather than US (but always UN for United Nations). American Exceptionalism, perhaps?

  • Mark Nichol

    Sally:

    The retention of periods in “U.S.” despite “UN” and other similar usage is ascribed to tradition. But The Chicago Manual of Style advises omitting the periods (arguing that as a postal code abbreviation, “US” should be treated without them), and I hope The Associated Press Stylebook and general usage won’t be far behind.

  • Mark Nichol

    Brian:

    Thanks for your note, and, in turn, for the new definition of the purpose of an apostrophe. As a matter of fact, Apostrophe Catastrophe is the name of one of the websites charting the apostrophe apocalypse.

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