A reader asks:
What is the correct way to write,
“there are three two’s in the English language”.
The short answer is:
There are three twos in the English language.
A more thorough answer requires a look at
1. the rule for forming the plural of letters, acronyms, symbols, and words regarded as words, and
2. the intended meaning of this particular sentence.
1. How to form the plural of letters, numerals, symbols, and words used as words
The Walsh Plain English handbook (widely used in American schools from 1939 into the 1970s) gave this rule:
Form the plurals of letters, symbols, figures, and words regarded as words by adding ‘s, or sometimes just s: Ex. Dot your i’s, cross your t’s, and make your 3’s (or 3s) plainer. You have too many and’s (or ands) in this sentence.
In 2009, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), an excellent and authoritative guide to written English, gives this rule:
The plurals of single capital letters, acronyms, and Arabic numerals (1,2,3,…) take an -s WITHOUT an apostrophe:
• Z (the capital letter Z)–Zs
• UPC (Universal Product Code)–UPCs
• ATM (Automatic Teller Machine)–ATMs
• GUI (Graphical User Interface)–GUIs
• 3 (the Arabic numeral 3)–3s
The OWL handout Forming plurals of lowercase letters carries this notation:
Apostrophes are used to form plurals of letters that appear in lowercase; here the rule appears to be more typographical than grammatical, e.g. “three ps” versus “three p’s.” To form the plural of a lowercase letter, place ‘s after the letter. There is no need for apostrophes indicating a plural on capitalized letters, numbers, and symbols (though keep in mind that some editors, teachers, and professors still prefer them).
My take on the use of the apostrophe to form any kind of plural is
avoid doing it if you can make your meaning clear in any other way.
Using ‘s to form the plural of symbols feeds the uncertainities of young writers who imagine that the apostrophe is the sign of the plural and write such things as The dog’s ran in the park. Or The dogs’ ran in the park. I’ve had students so mesmerized by the apostrophe that they wrote his as hi’s and goes as goe’s. Because of such experiences I balk at forming any kind of plural with ‘s.
In most cases no confusion results from adding a plain s to a numeral:
His 3s look like 8s. Or to an acronym: All the ATMs had been vandalized.
Adding s to a letter is tricky, as in the title of this post. The intended plural is looks like the verb is. Capitalizing the letter can help, but not in every case. Ex. Take more care in forming your As, Ts, and Is.
My solution is to resort to quotation marks: Take more care in forming your “a”s, “t”s, and “i”s.
I’m not entirely happy with my solution, but I prefer it to using the apostrophe to form a plural.
2. The sentence There are three twos in the English language.
Spoken, the sentence is a great way for a teacher to introduce the three English words that are pronounced [tu:]: to, two, and too. Attempting to put the sentence into written form, however, presents problems. For one thing, it spoils the pun. For another, there’s only one two in English.
Link to Owl Writing Lab