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
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
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.