Messy Plurals

Plurals can get messy. and the rules even messier. The Chicago Manual of Style tends toward logic, but in certain cases meaning can still be a bit obscure, and rewriting might be the best choice for a writer facing sentences like these:

  • All the listeners followed the beat in their hearts. [plural “hearts,” since they don’t all share one heart]
  • The children put their hats on their heads. [The children don’t share one head, yet Chicago says, “Please note, however, that people don’t always talk that way; the construction that omits the s is common and accepted in many contexts.]
  • I used 1 1/2 cups of sugar [although you’d think “one cup” is singular].
  • He had .5 percentage points and zero dollars. [Okay, isn’t that counterintuitive to you too?]

The most common mistake I see when editing is the addition of apostrophes to plurals. It’s so widespread everywhere, in fact, that I’m beginning to believe it’s an epidemic. All these apostrophes for plurals below are wrong:

  • I saw three B-52’s flying overhead.
  • Everyone, show your ID’s.
  • I have six cool CD’s and five DVD’s.

To avoid confusion, though, there are times when you need an apostrophe for a plural, such as with “getting all A’s” (so the word doesn’t look like as) and with lowercase terms like abc’s or p’s and q’s.

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