When to Form a Plural with an Apostrophe

By Maeve Maddox

This reader wants to know why we write 1980s and not 1980’s.

I understood that making text entities with non-letter characters into a plural form, you separate the s from the term with an apostrophe – 1900’s, Jones’, Smith’s, or Bang!’s.  So, why no apostrophe with 1980s?

A lot of writers share this reader’s understanding that non-letter characters are pluralized by adding apostrophe s.

Alas.

Alas, indeed. That pesky apostrophe raises a lot of blood pressure for writers of English.

If I had my druthers, we’d phase out altogether the use the apostrophe to form the possessive of nouns. What meaning would be lost if we wrote my mothers birthday, the cats tail or the cats tails?

Teachers and editors could save their red ink for dealing with the apostrophe and plurals.

NOTE: I’ve received so many protests regarding these facetious remarks that I hereby withdraw them. We do need the apostrophe to form the possessive. Mea culpa, dear readers.

I can’t really answer the reader’s question. What I can do is lay out what the Chicago Manual of Style says about when to use an apostrophe and when not to. And it has a lot to say. Here are only some of the rules this style guide offers.

Don’t use an apostrophe to pluralize a proper name or other capitalized noun:
Many Pakistanis have immigrated to the U.S. (not Pakistani’s)
I’ll be occupied for the next three Thursdays. (not Thursday’s)
The Jeffersons live here. (not the Jefferson’s)

NOTE: The CMS suggests that if you want to pluralize an awkward name like Waters or Rogers, you may want to reword the sentence to avoid writing the Waterses or Rogerses. (or Maddoxes?)

Don’t use an apostrophe to pluralize a title:
I have three Madame Bovarys and five Animal Farms. (Type the title in italics and the s in Roman face.

When forming the plural of words and hyphenated phrases that aren’t nouns but are used as nouns sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t:
I want no ifs or buts.
Here are the dos and don’ts of blogging.
I’ve written 25 thank-yous.
BUT
I’m tired of all his maybe’s.

DO NOT use an apostrophe to form the plural of capital letters used as words, abbreviations that contain no interior periods, and numerals used as nouns:
the three Rs.
the 1990s
lengthy URLs

NOTE: For the abbreviations p. (page), n. (note), and MS (manuscript), the plurals are pp., nn., and MSS

And for you scientific types, special rules apply for the plural of SI symbols:

No periods are used after any of the SI symbols for units, and the same symbols are used for both the singular and the plural. Most symbols are lowercased; exceptions are those that stand for units derived from proper names (A for ampere, etc.) and those that must be distinguished from similar lowercased forms. All units are lowercased in their spelled-out form except for degree Celsius (°C).

For those of you who, like me, hadn’t heard of SI symbols, you’ll find a list here.

DO use the apostrophe to form the plural of an abbreviation that combines upper and lowercase letters or has interior periods:
The department graduated five M.A.’s and two Ph.D.’s this year.

NOTE: If you leave out the periods, you can write MAs but you’d still have to write PhD’s.

DO use the apostrophe to form the plural of lowercase letters:
Mind your p’s and q’s.

DO NOT use the apostrophe to form the plural of capital letters:
What the CMS actually says is
Capital letters do not normally require an apostrophe in the plural.

One could write a sentence like this without confusing a reader:
You need to improve the formation of your Ts and Zs.

But one might be tempted to reach for the apostrophes with a sentence like this:
You need to improve the formation of your Ss, Is, and Us.

And finally—DRUM ROLL–our reader’s question about using an apostrophe with non-letter characters:

DO NOT use an apostrophe to form the plural of a number:
The 1920s were noted for excess.
I bowled two 300s and two 238s.

Source: Chicago Manual of Style, paragraphs 7.9, 7.12, 7,14, 7.15, 7.16, 7.65, 9.59.

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54 Responses to “When to Form a Plural with an Apostrophe”

  • Brad K.

    Thanks. I think part of my confusion, was confusing the plural of the 1980s with the possessive – such as 1980’s music. Or would it be 1980s’ music, if I meant the whole decade?

  • PreciseEdit

    Great post. I’ll add a piece from our post on this topic.

    Sentences like “Get your hamburger’s here” are simply wrong. The little apostrophe was not meant to make one hamburger into multiple hamburgers. Here are a few other samples of the apostrophe being pressed into the wrong service:

    “These paper’s need correcting.”
    “Two boy’s were bragging about their dog’s.”
    “Apostrophe’s are complicated.”

    Why do people do this to the apostrophe? The construction ’s is meant to show ownership or a contraction, not a plural. Perhaps people abuse the apostrophe in this way because they don’t know the difference between ownership and plurals. Perhaps they see this abuse occurring so often that they don’t even realize it is wrong (much like using “data” as a singular noun although it is really a plural.)

    Villainous sentences like “People living in the 1990’s bought a lot of CD’s” certainly don’t promote virtuous use of the noble apostrophe.

    The rest of the article:
    http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2009/04/03/end-apostrophe-abuse/

    Thanks, Maeve, for keeping this topic alive! Perhaps we can stem the tide of apostrophes used to make plurals.

  • Daran

    If I had my druthers, we’d phase out altogether the use the apostrophe to form the possessive of nouns. What meaning would be lost if we wrote my mothers birthday, the cats tail or the cats tails?

    All of your examples are unambiguous, but it is easy to come up with an ambiguous example: Does “the boys books” refer to the boy’s books or the boys’ books?

    Surely it’s better to retain those aspects of the language which help to resolve ambiguity.

  • Maeve

    Daran,
    I concede.

  • Gumbo Writers

    This is a great resource.

    However I’m not sure I agree that possessive apostrophes should be removed from English writing. It would be too bizarre.

  • Leslie

    My biggest question has to do with names that end in s. The Adams’ house? The Adams’s house? Happy holidays from the Adams? Yikes.

  • Kristen

    The New York Times is one of the biggest sinners when it comes to wrongfully using years with apostrophes – kills me every time 😉

  • Luke S.

    To Leslie (commenter #6, above):

    I believe Meave covered that subject in an early part of this post. I don’t think “Adamses” is all that awkward, but can see the opposite view as valid. What gripes me (surely the subject of a different post) is the misuse of the apostrophe to form the possessive without the extra ‘s’: “Charles’ pen” needs correction to “Charles’s pen.”

  • CJ

    As a writer, I find that you can generally get by with a few easy rules:

    1) Use an apostrophe to indicate possession (e.g., Sharon’s, the boys’, etc.).
    2) Use an apostrophe to indicate a contraction (e.g., can’t, doesn’t).
    3) Use apostrophes to indicate a quote within a quote (e.g., Simon said, “Billy said, ‘No way!'”).

    The exceptions are just needlessly confusing and may be ignored unless confronted by a strict grammarian. If that is the case, blame the error as being a “typo”, and beg forgiveness.

  • Ryan S.

    The SI symbols simply represent metric units (metres, litres, degrees Celsius, Kelvin, etc.) The site you linked to listed the metric prefixes. The prefixes are only used in conjunction with metric units. For example, the prefix ‘kilo-‘ is combined with the unit ‘metre’ to denote the ‘kilometre’ unit. The prefix ‘kilo-‘ multiplies the value of the unit it is attached to by 1000 (a kilometre is 1000 metres).
    Also, Kelvin, the SI unit of temperature, is written with a capital letter in its spelled-out form.
    I suspect, like the metric system, the imperial system would follow the same general rules. It would be unlikely to see, “There are 1000 lb.’s in 1 ton.”

  • Chris U

    One issue that I seldom see documented, if ever, anywhere, is the recommended usages of abbreviations for days of the week. In a publication listing events, space is often limited and usage of days of the week must be reduced – i.e., Saturday becomes Sat.

    In addition to abbreviated day name usages – Thu. or Thurs. – comes another common problem for me, which is abbreviating plural days of the week, for events held weekly – Saturdays at 8 p.m. How would this be abbreviated for space? Sats. at 8 p.m.? Sat.’s at 8 p.m.?

    I would love to hear solutions from other anal-retentive copy editors…

  • Peter

    The SI symbols simply represent metric units (metres, litres,

    A particular set of metric units (there are other metric systems that are not SI)

    degrees Celsius, Kelvin, etc.) The site you linked to listed the metric prefixes. The prefixes are only used in conjunction with metric units. For example, the prefix ‘kilo-’ is combined with the unit ‘metre’ to denote the ‘kilometre’ unit. The prefix ‘kilo-’ multiplies the value of the unit it is attached to by 1000 (a kilometre is 1000 metres).

    Except the base SI unit of mass is the kilogram, not the gram 🙂

    Also, Kelvin, the SI unit of temperature, is written with a capital letter in its spelled-out form.

    You’re a bit out of date—it used to be “degree Kelvin” before 1967; now it’s just “kelvin”: no capitals.

  • Brad K.

    Peter, one side note about prefixes.

    In computers, kilo-, mega-, giga-, and tera-, and peta- have binary definitions, instead of the 10 ** 3 (1,000, or one thousand) definition used in SI and other metric systems.

    The binary definition of kilo, is 2 ** 10, or 1,024.
    2 ** 20 (1024 x 1024) would be like for megabytes, or 1024 kilobytes.
    2 ** 30 would be for gigabytes, or 1048576 kilo bytes.
    2 ** 40 would be 1,045,576 megabytes, or 1 terabyte, same as 1,024 gigabytes.

    2 ** 50 would be peta, or 1,024 terabytes. Or 1,024 x 1,024 x 1,024 x 1,024 x 1,024 bytes.

    Remember when you wanted the PC/XT, with 128 k RAM instead of the basic 64k (64 kilobytes)?

    I just thought I would mention this. When the world (outside of computer types) think “kilo” or “k” means 1,000 – there is this nagging worry about a hard drive with 256 gigabytes of storage (1,024 / 4 = 256, another “even” binary number). No, they didn’t round off the numbers badly.

  • Peter

    Yes; except that disk drive manufacturers use the standard multiple of 1000, except for kB, so 1 GB of disk space is actually 1,024,000,000 bytes, but 1 GB of memory is 1,073,741,824 bytes, just to confuse people!

    Officially, there are binary prefixes: “Ki”, “Mi”, “Gi”, etc. (pronounced kibi-, mebi-, and gibi-); you’re supposed to use “KiB” to mean 1024 bytes, and “kB” to mean 1000 bytes, and so on—but I don’t know anybody who does.

    {Actually, the use of “byte” to mean “8 bits” is in a similar situation; “byte” properly just means whatever unit the processor uses—there have been computers with anything from 6 to 72-bit bytes, that I know of; technical standards often use “octet” to avoid ambiguity}

  • Brad K.

    Peter,

    There have always been a few errant marketing uses for “byte”, but the accepted meaning has been 8 bits.

    The unit that the processor uses, from 1 bit to 128 bit or larger, was called “word”. MS Windows is available for 32 bit and 64 bit word size processors. The old US Navy “Bravo” computers used a 22-bit word size, and all magnetic core memory, and could play “Jingle Bells” on your FM radio.

  • Peter

    As late as the mid 1980s, in some cases, the standard use of “byte” didn’t mean 8 bits (except in IBM, where the “8 bit” definition originates). MS Windows (really, IBM x86 compatible processors) uses a 32 or 64 bit word size, but the addressing unit is still 8 bits; but older computers often had an addressing unit of different width (the last one I know of to use a non-8-bit “byte” size was the last generation of Lisp Machine hardware, the Symbolics Ivory processor, using 48-bit bytes).

  • Randell

    What is the plural form of the grades A-, A+, B+, etc.?

  • Niall

    As an irritatingly pedantic professional writer, it is a great relief to find a website where I can vent my frustrations.

    I know I’m coming late to this conversation, but I really wanted to add that I recently had the same thought myself: it’s hopeless trying to save the apostrophe from its ubiquitous/iniquitous abuse. Better to simply abolish it.

    The difference between ‘the boys books’ and ‘the boys books’ would be obvious from the context, and if it weren’t, a small effort would make it obvious. The apostrophe today is like a hangnail – we only notice it when it snags on something and then it hurts like hell.

  • Beverly

    How seemingly simple, to eradicate apostrophe abuses by abolishing it! What is so difficult about understanding possessions and contractions? What is so difficult about understanding singular and pleural?

  • Paul

    I am grammatically challenged but,

    its -possessive
    it’s – it is

    contradicts the possessive rules, no?

  • Droqen

    Paul: “it is” has nothing to do with the contradiction.

    “its” seems to be a contradiction, but it lies within the realm of pronoun possessives, other examples being: my, his, her, their, your.

    The construction “noun’s” is only used in the case of more specific nouns. In the same way that you say “its” and not “it’s”, you say “my” and not “me’s”/”I’s”; “your” and not “you’s”.

    Also, “the boys books titles capitalization”
    has eight possible, ambiguous cases 😀

    (The boy’s book’s titles’ capitalization is the case of a boy with a book which has multiple titles. The boys’ books’ title’s capitalization is the case of some boys with some books which may share a title, or have a single title to refer to all of them. etc.)

  • Trevor Roberts

    Hey guys, stop mucking up the English language by wanting to change the rules. Firstly, you won’t change the rules except for yourselves. Secondly, by proposing rule changes to people via these fora is only going to add to the confusion. Thirdly, the rules we have are perfectly fine, even if complex. They’re less complex than the rules for driving, which we all willingly learn.

    What we have here is the tail wagging the dog. Instead of the tail learning the rule, it wants to wag the dog into changing the rule, or slackening the rule, or abolishing the rule.

    For example, drop the apostrophe and THEN try and work out the meaning of “the boys books titles capitalization”, as inferred by Droqen (where’s your “u”, by the way? 🙂 ) In this matter, I am surprised that Niall wants to take the apparently easy way out, when it is really fraught with danger. Why not get rid of punctuation altogether? It just gets in the way, doesn’t it? (I have a brother who writes me letters with paragraphs, but each could be a whole page long have just one sentence with no periods (except the last one), no commas, no apostrophes, no capitals, just words. It’s only because I know my brother that I can infer the context and understand what he is telling me.)

    Start eroding the rules by dropping one part because you find it a bit hard and the logical conclusion is to drop all the rules because there are always going to be people who find the remaining parts difficult.

    As for abbreviations, there is no formal abbreviation for Saturday, because Saturday is the NAME of a day. Abbreviate according to need. If your abbreviation causes it to lose its meaning, don’t abbreviate. The time we spend worrying about how the abbreviation should look could be used to type the whole word. Should you abbreviate my name? You better not, as it would no longer be my name. Same for Saturday. If you do abbreviate a name, the context should tell you all you need to know (e.g. its use as a table heading).

    Abbreviations do enter the language because we need to shorten the written word and some do end up as part of the language through common usage, but if we try to abbreviate everything then what do we end up with? Oh, yes – SMS text language. How can anyone create universal rules for such a loose cobbling together of letters that only mean something to a reader if the reader is familiar with it already. Is that where we want to take the language?

    Sometimes deliberately shortening the length of the message is fine, as in the economizing of its transmission, but you have to remember that is the context and we cannot build formal rules around that because technology will continue to drive changes. Remember the Morse code telegraph? Telling an executive to rush off to India to get company manager, Mr Stop, to cease his overenthusiastic expansion of the branch: “Go to Goa STOP Stop too hasty STOP Stop Stop STOP Hurry STOP”).

    The worst case of abuse of the possessive rules was when a colleague, who habitually uses “I” where he should use “me”, made the declaration one day that “… this idea was John and I’s.” I nearly fell off my chair. Because he became entrenched in abusing one rule, he was forced to start abusing other rules. (In a classic case of the sheep following the goats, our boss then started to do the same thing.) This is what you get into when you start changing the rules TO SUIT YOURSELF. You have to remember that there are billions of other people out here, many of whom are happy with the rules as they are. If you don’t play around with the rules in the first place (by using “I” where they should use “me”, for example), then there would be a lot fewer issues surrounding the use of apostrophes.

    I see it as a bit like driving a car, which has lots of rules attached. In your own ranch, however, you don’t have to give a right turn signal to turn right out of your cow paddock into the holding yard, but out on the street you have to, because there are all these other people who need to know what you are doing. Nobody cares what rules of English you adopt at home or when texting messages to friends, but when you write a formal letter then you must use the rules.

    I also blame some of the lazy teaching methods, which teach the phonetics and then leave it at that, leaving the all-important rules base to languish. Language has a history that is enveloped in the set of rules. When we teach history, we accept that we have no business trying to change that history just because it doesn’t sit well (who likes to hear that our ancestors, the settlers, displaced the original inhabitants so cruelly and unfairly?). It’s the same with language.

    I am a modest writer but I would like to think that any work that I write today will still have precisely the same meaning in 100 years, not be changed into something else because someone else decides that some of the rules are a bit strange because they not learned them to start with.

    Introducing the use of an apostrophe to form a plural in turn introduces a whole raft of problems. Let’s just avoid the problems and just don’t use the apostrophe to express plurality. Use the existing rules. Instead of baby’s, it is babies. Instead of maybe’s, it is maybies. Instead of Is, isolate the subject by using quotes (as we do to isolate quotations) and then add “s”, as “I”s. No “if”s or “but”s. Watch your “p”s and “q”s.

    On the computer issue, you are confusing two notions: the first, the use of bytes, which is a given number of bits (it could be 6 or 8 or some other number), is the physical addressable unit of storage, be it on a hard disk or in memory, whereas the reference to 32 or 64 bits refers to the size of data chunks that the processor uses. The given computer will process in a multiple of the bytes. Intel processors started out processing 8 bits (one byte) at a time. 8 bits was very limiting in the size of data it could work with, so a new generation of processors doubled the capability to 16 bits., allowing it to work with (loosely) 256 times as much data as before. The byte remained as 8 bits. Another generation doubled capacity again to 32 bits, allowing the computer to work with much larger data units and data bases. The byte did not change. The latest computers doubled the capacity again to 64 bits, allowing them to process huge chunks of data and work with enormous databases. The byte is still 8 bits. When the data is referenced in programs in multiples of bytes, the term Word is introduced, as in 2-byte Word, or 4-byte Word, or 8-byte.

    Think of a bit as a room in a house. There are 8 rooms in the house. Each room does not have an address, but the house does. You send a letter to the house, not the room. That is how it is with bits and bytes.

    Think of the processor data unit as an envelope. In a small envelope, you can fit a given number note book pages, let’s say 4. You double the size of the envelope (in all dimensions) and now you can fit not just 8 but 32 pages in the envelope. Double the size of the envelope again and now you can fit 256 pages in. That’s kind of how the processor capacity expands with doubling (it is actually much greater than that, as each additional bit doubles the capacity.

    Gee, I better get back to my life… 🙂

  • Martin

    The use of the apostrophe is very simple. It is used:

    1. To indicate possession: the genitive case
    2. To indicate where the portions of a word are omitted

    hence:

    1. The children’s book’s – the books owned by the children. The childrens library – the library provided for the children. The children’s presents – the presents received by and therefore owned by the children. The childrens presents – the presents given by the children.

    2.

  • Martin

    2. ‘phone short for telephone. Photo’ – short for photograph… hence photo’s.

    Simples

  • Martin

    Ooops! Should be no apostrophe on “books” . . . slip of the keyboard

  • Trevor Mcinsley

    Thanks, whilst I do know all of this such is the convoluted nature of the correct usage that it helps assuage doubt to occasionally refresh my memory.

    I would personally always use an apostrophe with lower or uppercase letters regardless of what the ‘accepted’ usage is.

    It is of course vital with ALL vowels (Es means Is in Spanish… etc) and ‘S’ for the sake of clarity but even things like ‘Ms’ and ‘Ps’ can easily be mistaken for their abbreviations, or typos of them…

    Also it can’t necessarily be guaranteed that something won’t come along and use an abbreviation or name like ‘Ds’. Despite the fact that it would of course need to be fully capitalised to refer to the product it still reads the same as it. Whereas ‘D’s’ can’t be mistaken, even if my stubborn refusal to conform and use “quotation marks” for quotes does rather complicate matters.

    Anyway, frankly it just makes sense to use them for all plural letters, capital or not, regardless of whether they make a word. One general rule is just easier and more logical than a dozen sub clauses.

    Oh and neater… ‘There are Ts, I’s, Es, S’s and Rs scattered about this example, except the I’s which I forget to add more of… oh nevermind.’ That just looks messy, ‘…T’s, I’s, E’s, S’s and R’s…” is uniform and logical.

    Yes… I am that pedantic and determined to ignore silly rules in the English language, don’t even get me started on ‘en masse’…

  • Lily

    I am working on a paragraph and I came across an apostrophe question. Can apostrophes be used in roman numerals or do these need to be written out.

    For example, Napoleon III’s army or is it Napoleon the third’s army ?

    Thanks, I appreciated all the help I can get.

  • Non-native English speaker

    Why not use one sign for possession and another for plural? For example ‘-‘ for plural when necessary. This leaves us with
    The letter s’s shape. (One s. It has a shape.)
    The letter s-s shape. (Many s. They do something.)
    The letter s-s’ shape. (Many s. They have a shape.)
    Likewise:
    Sat. (Today is Saturday.)
    Sat.’s (The Saturday’s best part is the morning.)
    Sat.-s (I love Saturdays.)
    Sat.-s’ (The Saturdays’ meetings were popular.)

  • John

    No one answered Randall’s question, regarding grades.

    What’s the plural form of grades? A’s but not B’s?

  • Trevor Hanson

    An hilarious series of exchanges. Thanks to everyone who has put an oar in the water.

    As a data point, I recently read a collection of letters exchanged between a pair of highly literate and well-educated people in the mid-20th century…one of whom was a professional editor and proofreader for a distinguished publishing house. Their letters were full of proper names in which the plurals were formed by adding apostrophe-s: Smith’s, Adams’s. I deduce that, before WWII, there was at least one school of serious grammarians who taught at least one generation that this was, indeed, the correct way to form plurals of names. Today it looks odd, because we all read the Chicago Manual, but we should remember that these usage rules remain fluid over decades and centuries.

  • Hank Abelard

    To Luke S.:

    The CWS says “names ending in s or an s sound are not required to have the second s added in possessive form.”

    So, it appears that you have already lost the fight against “Charles’ book”.

  • Jon

    I think the confusion stems from the fact that grammar rules change with each new generation’s pet peeves. When I was in grammar school in the 1980s, the way I just wrote the plural of “1980” would have been considered wrong. Now it is considered correct. It’s hard to keep up with rules that change from what you were taught.

  • Edward G. Talbot

    To Hank:

    Thank-you for pointing this out: “names ending in s or an s sound are not required to have the second s added in possessive form.”

    That saved me having to look it up to confirm that my memory is not faulty, and “Charles’ book” is indeed correct.

  • Lily Harwood

    Can anyone help me as this is driving me mad! What if you have multiple posessors but only one possession? As in Members Assembly (more than onr member, only one assembly) – is it Member’s Assembly or Members’ Assembly???

  • Glenn

    Members’ assembly, if it’s more than one member and you want to show they “own” the assembly. 🙂

  • Scott Snyder

    To Edward et al.:

    “Charles’ book” is not inarguably wrong, but I’m not sure I would say it is “indeed correct.” Strunk & White recommend “Charles’s book.” AP Style prescribes “Charles’ book.” Chicago Manual prefers the s, but indicates that “it is acceptable (especially in journalism)” to omit it.

    For my money, I’ll keep the s in “Charles’s book,” both for consistency and because I say it: “Charlzez book,” not “Charlze book.”

    On the subject at hand, I question why “dos” (as in “do’s and don’ts”) does not require an apostrophe, but “maybe’s” does.

  • Joanne

    Came across this forum trying to get the proper way to pluralize a formal name after an adjective. Is it: Silly Conejos or Silly Conejo’s?
    Word grammer checker want to add apostrophe

  • Ms Foster

    I think it would be safest never to use an apostrophe to form a plural.

    One maybe, two maybes. What is confusing about that? How does making it “maybe’s” help? Personally, the added implication of a possession confuses my eye-brain signals even more.

    The golden rule of forming a plural in English is so simple: add an S. Leaving aside exceptions and the rules for nouns ending in O, Y or F, people seem to abandon the most basic childhood principles as adults.

    Dos and don’ts, Ps and Qs, 1980s, FAQs. How are these confusing?

    I’m starting to feel a bit hysterical here. 🙂 I plead to everyone, for the sake of consistency: when in doubt about forming a plural, add an S and move on. Never use an apostrophe to form a plural.

  • Mary

    fa·ce·tious/fəˈsēSHəs/

    Adjective:

    Treating serious issues with deliberately inappropriate humor; flippant.

    Synonyms: jocose – humorous – jocular – waggish – comic – funny

  • Marina

    I agree that apostrophes should be dropped for plurals. I was reminded to be confused by this at the grocery store seeing a box of Morning O’s. “Os” might look a little odd, but so is the product name.

  • Daniel

    Well, I kind of like the apostrophe. Although I must say, many of the rules above are entirely arbitrary. I am pro-apostrophe as long as it makes sense.

    Here are some cases in which I think it makes sense, some contrary to the CMS:

    -Capital Letters: I think Z’s and S’s look much nicer anyway, and in cases like the ones given in the article it definitely improves clarity. So why not just do it for all? No confusion that way, just think of the cases that necessitate it if you ever forget! (Also it’s consistent with lower case letters. I cannot fathom why on earth it would make sense to use two different rules for lower- and uppercase letters here.)

    -Numbers: I think numbers (numerals) make sense to use apostrophe plurals for as well. With the technological developments of recent times, naming schemes that produce names such as “iPhone 4s” have become prominent. This is not the “iPhone ‘fours'”. I think there are very, very few cases in which the apostrophe causes any confusion in the pluralization of numerals.

    I’m still on the fence about titles. However, I think we can mostly agree that “ifs or buts” being correct renders the use of the apostrophe in “maybe’s” utterly insane (or vice versa). Of note, the spell checker for this box gives me an error for ands but not ifs or buts. o.O

  • David

    “What is the plural form of the grades A-, A+, B+, etc.?”

    I’ll give it a shot: If a subset of students all received the same grade on their reports, then the grade need not be pluralized. There is only ONE grade, A-. You don’t need to say “They all received A minuses or As minus on their reports”, you just say “They all received A minus”.

  • Steve Loh

    What if my students all just got As? Or should it be, they all got A’s? I know the rule, but the second way sure seems to be less confusing. If a college student received five semester grades, all As, that seems unclear. But all A’s — that seems better. And three A-s seems like I’m trying not to write the word Ass. Help!

  • Amelia

    This is nonsense:
    “NOTE: If you leave out the periods, you can write MAs but you’d still have to write PhD’s.”

    PhDs is perfectly understandable.

  • Lane Elms

    What about a model number that includes letters and numbers? I often refer to loudspeakers with model numbers like JF80, UPM-1p, or UB40e. Sometimes an “s” at the end could change the meaning of the model number. Could I use an apostrophe if that was the case without looking like an idiot? UPA-1P’s, JF80’s, etc.

  • Lisa

    Here is the sentence that I have to type:

    There’s a lot of S’s in that acronym.

    Is it S’s or Ss or Ses? My inclination is to go with the first one so that the reader better understands the sentence.

  • Erick

    Lisa: Your question was answered in multiple comments.

    S’s.

    And in your sentence, it would be “There’re” or “There are” as you are referring to multiple S’s.

  • Kiwi-Ian

    Ms Foster – I’m with you. If you never use an apostrophe in a plural you will never be wrong. There maybe a few instances where grammarians may accept an apostrophe, but I think that for the vast majority of cases, no apostrophe = right (or least not wrong).

    Scott Snyder – I’m with you too. One says Charlzez book so one should write Charles’s book.

    Trevor Hansen – it would be interesting to know if these letters from the mid 20th century referred to a plural or a possessive, e.g., “went to the Adams’s last night for dinner” actually refers to the Adams’s home, just as you would say “I went to John’s [house] last night”.

    Jon – I wonder whether the rules have changed or whether your teacher was from a generation which was trying to relax the rules (confusingly). I have an English Ladies’ Encyclopedia from 1928 which essentially agrees with with what I have said above.

    There are times when perhaps rephrasing is the best policy. Other languages do this all the time.

    If you think English is complicated try learning another language. Spanish and French have 4 and German 6 ways of saying “the”! The most irregular verb in English (to be) has just 8 forms (be, been, being, am, are, is, was, were), a regular French verb has at least 32 and an irregular one (être = to be) is approaching 50.

    Perhaps our worries about the use of the apostrophe are because English grammar is so easy and usually intuitive that it is no longer taught in schools and trivial problems become big ones. Just remember, we only have 1 form of “the” and 2 ways of saying it depending on the following letter.

  • Joris van den Outenaar

    In Dutch, we form possessive nouns by only attaching an S. Funnily enough, people still (erroneously) add an apostrophe sometimes. Perhaps they picked this up from reading English. Perhaps they just write down whatever fancies them.

    My guess is you won’t get rid of spelling mistakes by transitioning to a seemingly easier system.

  • Jonathan Leung

    Little surprised you’ve never heard of SI units…? How do you measure things? Even if you live in the United States which hasn’t adopted the metric system for most things I’m pretty sure kilobytes and megabytes must be common usage, aren’t they?

    Anyway, and I could be being difficult here, but what if you had an art project, like an image or sculpture, that involved the letter “S” repeated, and the big ones were made of multiple ones? So if you were commenting on them, would you refer to “the letter Ss’ Ss?” Or “the letter Ses’ Ses?”

    This is something I’ve wondered about for a while, and now that I scroll up I do see that Lisa asked the same thing back in June, at least about plural S. “Ses” makes sense but looks like it could be easily mispronounced “sess”.

  • Jonathan Leung

    Though not about pluralization, there are two points about apostrophes I’m also curious about:

    I’ve often seen people write “I would of”, which is ridiculous, because clearly they mean “I would have”, or shortened, “I would’ve”. But when it’s in the negative, is it “I wouldn’t’ve”? I use that a lot because that’s how we say it, but how often in English should there be multiple apostrophes in one word (or one contracted word)? (And lo, spellcheck proves my point by underlining “wouldn’t’ve” with a red line…)

    And then there’s “you’re”, which is obviously “you are”. (Well, it should be obvious, but that’s another point.) But what about at the end of a sentence? If someone says “you are what you are”, it looks weird to me to say “You’re what you’re”. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard the rule that some contractions can’t end a sentence; is there one?

  • Michael Stranathan, M.A.

    What about letter grades? By designating a grade with a letter you are assigning a name and capitalization of the name requires use of an apostrophe when one is talking about more than one grade (e.g., Susan received five A’s and a B).

  • Maeve

    Michael,
    I’d say that letter grades would take an apostrophe to avoid this kind of thing mentioned in the post:

    “But one might be tempted to reach for the apostrophes with a sentence like this:
    You need to improve the formation of your Ss, Is, and Us.”

    The plural of the letter A without an apostrophe would look like a word: Susan received five As and a B).

  • Bryan W

    We most definitely need apostrophes to form possessives 🙂

    “My roommates cars bumper stickers highlight my favorite political groups quotes.”

    How many roommates? How many cars? How many political groups?

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