Plurals and Possessives
I’m starting this chapter with a general disclaimer -- I wrote this book with American English in mind. I’m not saying it’s the only language in the world or the most correctest of all; it’s just that that’s the way I’m doing it.
That silliness aside, let me remind you that this is not intended to be the ultimate answer for any subject. I combine answers from various sources (dictionaries, Web sites, and style guides) and show the most common. Where there is controversy, I show the preferred as well as any arguments regarding differences.
Here’s the table of contents so you can find specific things.
Greek and Latin Forms
Organizations and Companies
Cups, Teaspoons, and Tablespoons
* * *
I have mentioned in many post’s and comment’s that most writer’s use too many comma’s, but the comma is not the most misused punctuation mark. That honor goe’s to the apostrophe!
No matter what I do to put myself in a writer’s mind, I cannot understand why one would stick an apostrophe in a word simply because it ends in s.
One example I’ve seen is:
Most of the computer’s and printer’s in our office are older models.
Even worse is:
Most of the computer’s and printers in our office are older models.
FOR THE RECORD: An apostrophe serves three purposes. In a contraction it indicates that one or more letters are being left out.
Isn’t = is not
They’re = they are
I’ve = I have
In a possessive it indicates ownership.
The dog’s toy = the toy that belongs to the dog
Where many writers have a problem is it’s/its. I’ve had any number of people ask me for some kind of memory trick to remember the difference. I haven’t found anything on the Web and I haven’t come up with an easy way to remember the difference so I think this is one of those cases where you’ll just have to memorize them.
It’s = it is, the contraction. It’s time to go.
Its = the possessive. The computer and its attached mouse.
The third purpose of an apostrophe is to make something a plural in a few limited situations. The first is when pluralizing individual letters of the alphabet.
Your son did well this year and came home with three A’s and two B’s.
Note that the A and B were not italicized in the sentence above because you were talking about grades. If you’re talking about letters as letters, they are italicized.
My grandmother always told me to watch my p’s and q’s.
Here the letters are italicized, but the ‘s is not.
Same thing if you happen to be in my business and are telling a writer that (s)he used some word too many times. You’re referring to a word as a word, so it is italicized and you would write:
You used too many that’s in the last paragraph.
Again, the word is italicized, but the ‘s is not.
The other time we use an apostrophe to create a plural occurs in acronyms or abbreviations and must be considered carefully. Although there are better ways to word the following examples, they could properly be written as shown with the first as a plural and the second as a possessive.
There are different types of scubas.
The scuba’s mouthpiece was an older style. (One scuba.)
The scubas’ mouthpieces were the older style. (Multiple scubas.)
The M.O.s of the crooks were similar.
The M.O.’s pattern was the same in all cases.
In the ‘80s there were different DOS’s.
DOS’s instructions were easy to follow.
In the final example, note that an apostrophe is used to form both the plural and the possessive because of the final s in the acronym.
Numerals used in writing are made plural with an s and without an apostrophe.
It happened in the 1890s.
There were seven 8s in the document and only three 2s.
In the last example the 8 and 2 are italicized, but the s is not.
Making numbers possessive is easy as long as you think about what you’re trying to say. If you’re talking about the fins on 1959 Dodges, you would merely make it possessive.
The 1959’s Dodge fins were the last really big ones.
If you’re talking about a number of years, you make it plural with an s and then make it possessive with an apostrophe.
The late 1950s’ car fins were almost obscene.
We typically pluralize a noun by adding the letter s to it. In each example I’m including the possessive form in parentheses.
Example (example’s) = examples (examples’)
Numeral (numeral’s) = numerals (numerals’)
Ski (ski’s) = skis (skis’)
Document (document’s) = documents (documents’)
Noun (noun’s) = nouns (nouns’)
When a word ends in x, ch, s, or an s-like sound, we form the plural by adding es.
Cross (cross’s) = crosses (crosses’)
Witch (witch’s) = witches (witches’)
Sex (sex’s) = sexes (sexes’)
bus (bus’s) = buses (buses’)
The last is shown in some dictionaries with busses as an alternative. Keep in mind that dictionaries show all possibilities and, just because busses is listed as an alternative, that doesn’t mean that you should use it. In our writing we should strive to use the preferred form at all times.
As we learned in school, if a word ends in y, we change the y to i and add es.
Safety (safety’s) = safeties (safeties’)
Baby (baby’s) = babies (babies’)
Then we have the irregular nouns. There are others, but these are the most common.
Barrack (barrack’s) = barracks (barracks’)
Child (child’s) = children (children’s)
Deer (deer’s) = deer (deer’s)
Fish (fish’s) = fish (fishes’) or fishes (fishes’)
Goose (goose’s) = geese (geese’s)
Man (man’s) = men (men’s)
Mouse (mouse’s) = mice (mice’s)
Woman (woman’s) = women (women’s)
How about those nouns that end in o?
Cello (cello’s) = cello (cello’s) or cellos (cellos’) or celli (celli’s) [Toss-up as to the favored plural.]
Hero (hero’s) = heroes (heroes’)
Memo (memo’s) = memos (memos’)
Potato (potato’s) = potatoes (potatoes’)
Stereo (stereo’s) = stereos (stereos’)
Tomato (tomato’s) = tomatoes (tomatoes’)
[Possessives are pretty standard and I’m going to dispense with the possessives for individual words and discuss some special cases toward the end.]
Pluralizing personal names follows the same rules of regular nouns.
Susan = Susans
Ruthi = Ruthis
Maxwell = Maxwells
Cox = Coxes
Grinch = Grinches
Sally = Sallys
Note that this last disagrees with the concept of changing the final y to i and adding es. This construction applies only to personal names.
Greek and Latin Forms
There are a number of words that retain their Greek or Latin roots and present some problems for us. In the cases where there are multiple possibilities, I’ve arranged them with the preferred listed first.
Alumnus = alumni (masculine)*
Alumna = alumnae (feminine)
Analysis = analyses**
Appendix = appendixes or appendices
Cactus = cacti or cactuses or cactus
Crisis = crises
Criterion = criteria
Datum = data or datums***
Ellipsis = ellipses
Focus = foci
Forum = forums or fora (Forums is preferred in general writing and fora is preferred in the scientific community.)
Fungus = fungi
Index = indexes or indices
Medium = mediums or media (Media is typically used to refer to news sources.)
Nucleus = nuclei
Parenthesis = parentheses
Phenomenon = phenomena
Syllabus = syllabi
Thesis = theses
* Alumnus/alumna presents a continuing argument in the academic world. In the original Latin, alumnus could, properly, be used to indicate both men and women. In today’s world that’s a no-no and many schools are using either the brief form of alum or, more properly, graduate. More on that in the chapter on sexism in writing.
** Note the pronunciation of words that are pluralized by changing the i to an e such as analysis and analyses. The singular sounds like “siss” and the plural sounds like “seize.”
*** Datum/data/datums presents a unique situation in that the word datum and its plural datums are used primarily in scientific writing. In general writing, about the only time you’d use them is in dialogue when a scientist is speaking.
Although it is perfectly proper to use datum as a singular noun and data as the plural in general writing, we find that datum has pretty much fallen by the wayside and everyone uses data for both the singular and plural. Again, in dialogue you might include datum when someone is speaking and is either a scientist or a wannabe scientist.
When words end in f or fe we normally change the f-sound to a v-sound and add s or es. Here are the most common along with a couple exceptions.
Dwarf = dwarfs or dwarves
Elf = elves
Hoof = hooves or hoofs
Knife = knives
Leaf = leaves
Life = lives
Roof = roofs
Self = selves
Wharf = wharves or wharfs
There are (probably hundreds of) nouns that are termed as collective. Each one represents a group of people, places, or things and is treated as singular when you’re writing about the entire group, but plural when you’re writing about individual members. Here is a short list as a sample.
Army, array, audience, band, bevy, board, board, bunch, cabinet, cabinet, cast, choir, chorus, class, cloud, committee, company, congregation, corporation, council, crowd, department, dozen, faculty, family, firm, flock, gang, group, heap, herd, jury, kind, lot, majority, minority, navy, number, orchestra, party, plethora, public, school, senate, society, staff, team, and troupe.
The committee is in charge of some task and the committee have an average of ten-years experience in their fields.
The choir sang its song and then took their seats.
In each of these examples, the first is singular because you’re talking about the noun as a whole and plural in the second because you’re talking about the individual members.
The articles the and a have one unique property that many writers overlook: they can tell you whether the following noun is singular or plural.
The number of dissenters is increasing and a number of them are falling asleep.
You’ll notice if you use the, the following noun, number, is singular. If you use a, then the noun is plural.
School classes are normally singular.
Statistics is my favorite class.
Be careful with numbers; they are normally considered singular, but can be plural if you’re talking about individuals within the group.
Twenty thousand dollars is what I won in the lottery.
Twenty percent of the students are seniors.
There are some nouns that appear to be singular but require a plural verb. Pants is one such and we would say that my pants fit. However, note that we would refer to one pant leg.
When you write one of the, it will always be followed by a plural noun as the object of the preposition, but the verb will be singular.
One of the men is tall.
One of the committee members is an executive.
Organizations and Companies
You would say that the Elks are a fraternal organization or that the Elks Lodge is a fraternal organization.
Goodyear Tires has introduced a new tire for its NASCAR contract.
The Beach Boys are my favorite 1960s group.
Journey is my favorite all-time group.
Most guides say that teams should be treated as plurals. Thus the Lakers are a great team and the Jazz have come a long way.
A number of sports writers use singular for teams such as the Jazz. They would have written something about how the Jazz has come a long way. That's fine for sports writers, but we want to follow the preferred form unless we're quoting one of them.
There are some abbreviations that have embedded plurals in them. The one most people recognize is rpm (revolutions per minute). You can say that a propeller turns at two hundred rpm and you’d be correct. But what if you’re comparing two propellers? You could say that one has higher rpm than the other or that one has higher rpms than the other.
Which one is correct depends on how you think of it. If you think of it as saying that one propeller has higher revolutions per minute, then you’d write rpm. If you think of it as just the abbreviation, then you’d write rpms. Both are correct, but the former is preferred.
Cups, Teaspoons, and Tablespoons
Anyone who deals with recipes is always fretting about whether (s)he needs four tablespoons full of something, four tablespoonsful of something, or four tablespoonfuls of that thing.
This one, seemingly innocent, topic took me more than three hours of research looking at both creative writing references and cooking Web sites. The result is -- I have no clue what’s right or wrong. I’ll give you the most common preferences and then make a recommendation. (Oh, because I’m lazy and don’t want to deal with such a long word as tablespoon, I’ll be using cup in the following discussion but they all work the same way.)
Although you regularly see a reference to four cupsful of something, I found very little support for that. Recommendation = don’t use cupsful.
There are two distinctly different types of writing here -- cooking and creative.
For cooking, you have to be exact in measurements. (Yeah, right; like a pinch of this and a dab of that is really exact.)
If the recipe calls for a cup of something, that means you use one cup of whatever it is. You may occasionally refer to a loosely packed cup, a fully packed cup, a cup, a level cup, or a rounded cup. But, each one of those refers to a measuring cup. If the recipe calls for a cup of something then there’s no reason to say you need a cupful, a cup full, or a full cup. Recommendation = when writing a recipe, use a cup as the measurement and don’t modify it as full or not. If you have to add two cups of something, then just say add two cups of that thing.
Creative writing -- wow! I honestly wish cupful was not shown in any dictionary because I wouldn’t have to worry about giving you rules for using it.
It is usually proper to say that I have a cupful of something. But what if I have more? Most guides say that you could properly say that you have two cupfuls of that item.
However, if I had two cups of something sitting on the counter, I would have to say that I had two cups full of that something.
I think it comes down to looking at the situation and your sentence and then using the wording that makes the most sense.
I make no bones about saying that my preferred style guide is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Rule number one in that little bible is: Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.
Following that, if you were talking about a dog that belonged to Charles, you’d write it as being Charles’s dog.
The New York Public Library’s Guide to Style and Usage has quite a discussion of this subject saying that we must use common sense when forming possessives based on appearance and sound. Its quote is: "certain expressions that end in s or the s sound that traditionally require an apostrophe only: for appearance' sake, for conscience' sake, for goodness' sake."
The argument to that is that, when you’re speaking the words, you actually pronounce the “es” sound, so you need the ‘s at the end: for appearance’s sake, for conscience’s sake, for goodness’s sake.”
I came across one reference that said it was bad form to use ‘s with pieces of furniture, buildings, or inanimate objects in general. His example was: Instead of "the desk's edge" (according to many authorities), we should write "the edge of the desk" and instead of "the hotel's windows" we should write "the windows of the hotel."
His argument crosses the line from possessives to adjectival labels and attributive nouns. Look at these three samples; all three are grammatically correct.
Standing on the sidewalk, I looked up at all the windows of the hotel.
Standing on the sidewalk, I looked up at all the hotel’s windows.
Standing on the sidewalk, I looked up at all the hotel windows.*
One more sample of that same idea; all three are grammatically correct.
Cruising in the 1960s, I always had my car radio cranked up high.*
Cruising in the 1960s, I always had my car’s radio cranked up high.
Cruising in the 1960s, I always had the radio of my car cranked up high.
Once more, all three are grammatically correct. Which would you use?
My grandma always had a potted plant on her window ledge.*
My grandma always had a potted plant on her window’s ledge.
My grandma always had a potted plant on the ledge of her window.
One final example and, once again, both of them are grammatically correct.
Sam fell and hit his head on the desk’s edge.
Sam fell and hit his head on the edge of the desk.*
I stuck an asterisk at the end of each one that I’d use. How did I decide? Each of those just sounded right when I read them. How you write each will depend on how each one sounds to you.
But, what if we’re writing about something that could have different meanings?
I once attended a managers committee meeting.
I once attended a managers’ committee meeting.
I once attended a manager’s committee meeting?
If there was a committee that was formed primarily for managers, then it was a managers committee meeting. If there was a committee that belonged to the managers, then it was a managers’ committee meeting. If, however, a single manager had some kind of committee and held a meeting, it would be a manger’s committee meeting.
Some U.S. holidays have possessive forms and some do not.
All Souls’ Day
April Fool’s Day
Daylight Saving Time (neither plural nor possessive)
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
New Year’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day
St. Valentine’s Day
Veterans Day (Nobody has yet figured out why this is not possessive.)
When you have compounded nouns and are showing possession, the placement of the apostrophe determines the meaning and whether you need to use a singular or plural verb.
Right = Sam’s and Sue’s houses are white.
Right = Sam and Sue’s house is white.
Wrong = Sam’s and Sue’s house is white.
The first indicates that each of them have a house. The second indicates that there is one house owned by both of them. The last one is never correct.
That’s all right until we get to thoughts or dialogue and have to throw in a pronoun. Here, we have to depend on the subject/verb agreement to figure out what’s being said.
Sue said, “Sam’s and my car is in the garage.”
Sue said, “Sam’s and my cars are in the garage.”
In the first there is one car belonging to both of them and in the second there are two separate cars.
I can talk about my mother-in-law or, because I’ve been married multiple times, I can talk about my mothers-in-law. If I’m talking about one of their cars I’d say “my mother-in-law’s car.” If I were referring to more of them, I’d say “my mothers-in-law’s cars.” That gets a bit klutzy and you might want to use the of construction and say “the cars of my mothers-in-law.” Somewhat like saying “the car of a friend of mine” rather than “a friend of mine’s car.”
This was a heading on two different Web sites and brings up the point that you have to look at the meaning of the phrase before you write it.
Which of the following is correct?
A friend of my uncle’s.
A friend of my uncle.
My uncle’s friend.
If you look at the first sample, “uncle’s” is possessive which implies it’s going to be followed by something telling what he owns. It isn’t -- that doesn’t make sense and isn’t grammatically correct. You will, however, hear people say that regularly so you might be able to get away with it in dialogue. Even then, I’d be careful with it.
The other two samples have very subtle implications. “A friend” implies that the subject is one of several or many friends. “My uncle’s friend” implies that he only has one or, at the very least, this one is the most important to my uncle.
Both the second and third samples are grammatically correct and could be used in exposition or dialogue depending on what you’re trying to express.
The only place we have a problem with a double possessive is when we say something such as, “I have a picture of my father,” or “I have a picture of my father’s.” Common sense tells us that the first one refers to a photo of your father and the second refers to a photo that belongs to your father and you have it.
As with many other topics, I could have filled many more pages, but my aim is to provide basic information on each topic to serve as a quick reference and reminder for other writers. I’ll caution you again that consistency in your writing is critical. If you have a preferred style guide/manual -- use it. If you don’t, feel free to use any of my recommendations as a reference source.