Avoiding Apostro-tastrophe: The Plural Apostrophe

HaloContinuing with our apostrophic discussion from the last grammar blip post, now it’s time to talk about how apostrophes and nonpossessive plurals don’t mix…

Let it be known henceforth and forevermore that if thou art attempting to create the plural form of a singular noun—that is, in indication that more than one of the item be present—thou shalt NOT use an apostrophe.

DIVINE: The angel’s song.
DEVILISH: The angel’s sang.

What is the difference between these examples (other than changing a vowel in the verb)? In the first case, the song belongs to the angel. You could easily replace this example with ‘the song of the angel’ and retain the original meaning. In the second case, the ‘sang’ cannot belong to the angel, because, for one thing, ‘sang’ is not a noun. You could not replace this example with ‘the sang of the angel’ and have it make any sense. Clearly, ‘angel’ in the second example is meant to be ‘angels’ plural, as in more than one angel sang.

Sometimes there is confusion among even staunch grammar evangelists, usually perpetuated by tiny impish demons that trick true believers into thinking a similar situation calls for a similar grammatical construction.

DIVINE: The Saints’ house
DEVILISH: The Saints’ live here.

*DIVINE: We’re going to the Saints’.
DEVILISH: We’re going to see the Saints’.

Again, when in doubt, attempt to change the wording to an of-phrase and see if it makes sense. If it does—the house of the Saints; we’re going to the Saints’ [house]—then you’re golden. If not—the live here of the Saints; we’re going to see the of the Saints—then you’re going to the other place.

Other believers may be lost on the path of numerology. Remember, no apostrophe is necessary when adding an ‘s’ to a number.

DIVINE: 1920s; the twenties
DEVILISH: 1920’s; the twenty’s

Special phrases involving plural forms of words that are not usually pluralized may also cause some uncertainty. But in most cases, you add an ‘s’ without an apostrophe.

DIVINE: Ifs, ands, or buts
DEVILISH: If’s, and’s, or but’s

It may be even more tricky with a contraction and a word that ends in a vowel. Your instinct might be to add the apostrophe to separate the ‘s’ from the vowel, but at the same time you feel awkward about having two apostrophes in one contraction. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to the oft used phrase “dos and don’ts.” Note that no apostrophes were harmed during the pluralizing of this phrase.

DIVINE: Dos and don’ts
DEVILISH: Do’s and don’t’s

The caveat to this rule, though, is to cave to common sense. If a pluralized word will cause confusion, and adding an apostrophe will clear up that confusion, then use the apostrophe. Clarity is next to godliness in grammar, always. But these exceptions are so incredibly rare that I can only think of two instances that call for it: lowercase letters, and abbreviations with either more than one period or a combination of upper and lowercase letters.

REASONABLY RIGHTEOUS: PhD’s; M.A.’s (Note that whether you use periods or not in these types of abbreviations is dependent on your organization’s particular style)

That about wraps it up for plurals. For our final installment on the angelic apostrophe, we’ll cover tangential topics related to proper apostrophe operation.

Other posts on apostrophes:
Apostrophe Abuse
Guidelines for Using Apostrophes Correctly
Apostrophe Catastrophe

* Thanks to Sister Rachel for the recommendation of the second example.

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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2 Responses to Avoiding Apostro-tastrophe: The Plural Apostrophe

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