Monday, October 1, 2012

Grammar ABCs: P is for Plurals

How often have you see this type of thing? The Smith’s got together with the Johnson’s to discuss the problem’s they had with their kid’s.

It seems to me when God handed out apostrophes, some people must have taken more than their fair share.

Most nouns add an “s” or “es” to indicate more than one. (I’m not going to get into irregular plurals, like woman-women, child-children etc.) It’s very simple, really. The Smiths (more than one Smith) got together with the Johnsons (also more than one Johnson) to discuss the problems (oh dear, more than one problem!) with their kids. (also more than one kid. They must have been fighting again.)

Here’s when you can use apostrophes: to indicate possession or ownership. The kid’s book, mom’s apple pie, Bob Smith’s beard, Jim Johnson’s wife.

What if you have a plural that ends in “s” and you want to show possession? The style varies somewhat here. Some publications simply use the apostrophe after the “s”. The Smiths’ children. Other style guides indicate added an apostrophe and another “s”: The Smiths’s children. To me, this looks very strange and I see the first method used more often.

Then you have “it” and this is an exception to the possessive rule. The ONLY time “it” adds an apostrophe and an “s” is when it’s a contraction of it is.

Here’s another exception: an apostrophe plus “s” can be used to pluralize nouns with strange forms, such as letters, numerals, acronyms or abbreviations. The student earned all a’s is correct. Without the apostrophe it would appear as the word “as.” We can also say, “Mind your p’s and q’s” or “He rolled 7’s and 11’s.” (Normally in fiction you’d spell the numbers out: sevens and elevens, but it is permissible when using numerals to add an apostrophe for a plural.)

Here’s another good blog post that talks about this subject, at Motivated Grammar

What are some other examples you’ve found?


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.  
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  1. Ah, Heidi, you have expounded on a grammar error that occurs so often in the manuscripts I edit. However, some of us who know better are prone to make the same mistake. When I proof my own work, I'm sometimes amazed at the times I use possessives when plurals are needed and vice versa. Perhaps that's because I'm thinking story, not grammar, when I write. What rolls off the tips of my fingers onto the keyboard cares only about getting words on paper—the grammar stuff can come later.

    Great post! :-)

  2. We were just discussing this at our writer's retreat! The consensus there is that if there is an "S" in the word you only use the "'", but no "s" you use "'s." For example:

    The Carmichaels's vs
    The Smiths'

    This surprised me as I always thought you used the second.


  3. Just read over my comment. Apparenty I need more coffee. Possibly an entire pot. I hope you can understand what I typed, because it is totally unclear to me! lol.

  4. Jodi, you're welcome to share my coffee, and I'll even throw in a piece of coffee cake. It's appealing in its simplicity. ;)

  5. Jodi: I'm glad you clarified that first comment ... I thought I was having a flashback.

  6. Well said! I am amazed at how often I see ABC's instead of ABCs. At a conference recently, an author was selling her book that actually had the title "The ABC's of..." (I won't share the rest of the title to save her embarrassment). At the same conference, the slide of a presenter had "RFP's" instead of "RFPs". Wow!

  7. Jodi, I loved your comment. You beat Christopher to the punch confusing us today. :D This is a great post, Heidi, as we'll soon be getting holiday greetings in the mail addressed to all the apostrophed families. Drives me nuts! From people who really should know better. I find myself messing up, too, and I believe it's because we SEE the error so often on our social networks, our little brains get programmed to it and we end up typing incorrectly. That's my excuse anyway, and it's perfectly logical, isn't it? ;)

  8. BTW, newspapers have their own style guides and are pretty liberal and creative in their use of apostrophes. I once corrected the NY Times about their use of G.I.'s in their headlines. And was soundly put in my place. ;)

  9. If only you were preaching to the general populace, Heidi, and not only to the choir! Where this bothers me most is on printed signage: Fish Filet's On Sale, or Three Karoake Night's This Week! (Yes, I was dying to go up to the latter and at the very least rearrange the letters to spell "karaoke" correctly, but something about the reigning ignorance made me fear having a shotgun put to my temple).

  10. thanks for sharing..

  11. Thank you all for chiming in on this conundrum! I just got back from a 2-week mini book tour and research trip to Montana. On the third, I was experiencing SNOW after a 73-degree day the day before--only in Montana!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.