Tag Archive - Plurals

More Messy Plurals

Creating plurals would be a snap if it were always as simple as adding s or es to a noun. But we all know the English language isn’t that simple.

What’s a person to do with compound nouns? Is it daughter-in-laws or daughters-in-law? Attorneys general or attorney generals? Passerbys or passersby?

The general rule—regardless of whether the compound noun is hyphenated, two words, or closed up—is to make the principal word plural. Another way to think of it is to pluralize the element that is subject to change in number.

Thus daughters-in-law, attorneys general, and passersby are the appropriate plurals.

In the case of two-word compounds, look for the most significant word regardless of placement. Continue Reading…

Share and Share Alike

Would you say “This is Joe’s and Sally’s car” or “This is Joe and Sally’s car”? This type of question can come up a lot in writing. The rule is that you only need the apostrophe + s after the second name if the two people share the item noted.

  • John and Mary’s marriage is on the rocks.
  • Bill and Nina’s escrow closed last week.
  • Mike and John’s team won the division.

So, conversely, if two people do not share the item or issue in question, you would need them each to have the apostrophe + s.

  • Both Frank’s and Sara’s job contracts will get renewed
  • Bob’s and Ted’s adventures went well [no, this isn’t about their joint excellent adventure].

The same idea applies to words that are plural:

  • The doctors’ and the lawyers’ conventions went well [two different conventions].
  • The actors and actresses’ show went well [they were in the same show].

Don’t get me started, though, about how I feel when I hear “Hey, mine and you guys’s car is the same!”

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.