John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Keeping up with the Joneses

Yes, Joneses. That’s how it’s done. Today we’re going to have a little refresher tutorial on plurals and possessives. If you’ve already got that down, or think you do, you may go to the library and find a book to read until the next post.

Singular

mule
man
Compson
Snopes

Singular possessive

mule’s
man’s
Compson’s
Snopes’s or Snopes’

Plural

mules
men
Compsons
Snopeses

Plural possessive

mules’
men’s
Compsons’
Snopeses’

Be careful

No matter how many times you have seen it done, do not make nouns plural by adding ’s. The Smith’s is not a proper plural. Neither is the Jones'. The apostrophe can, however, be used to make individual letters — all A’s in the editing class — or numerals — aces and 8’s — plural.

Either Jones’s or Jones’ may be used for the singular possessive. Both usages are current; which one you choose will depend on the style your publication prefers.

Watch out for words that form plurals without adding s or es. If you write childrens’ — and people do — your literacy will be called into question.

Such is the melancholy state of education in this proud republic that I must conduct this elementary review every semester for juniors and seniors at a private university. It would therefore not come as a great shock if some of you would benefit from it, too.

14 comments:

  1. For singular possessive, Snopes's has two advantages over Snopes. One, it's disconcerting to have a sound in your head that isn't reflected on the page. With Snopes's, the reader sees the "s" sound. Two, it's clear at a glance that Snopes's is a singular possessive for Snopes and not the plural possessive for Snope. I agree that either usage is acceptable, but one way is better, so why not use that way, unless it goes against a publication's style? Hope I'm the first commenter today. Never have been before.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's a start. Now: The United States' reputation; McDonald's profits ...

    ReplyDelete
  3. My memory has been refreshed... Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  4. You forgot the stipulation about ancient proper nouns such as Hercules, Archimedes, and Jesus.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Excellent. Now, could you turn your baleful attentions toward the irritating insistence of so many people upon making pronouns possessive with an apostrophe-s?

    Its really irritating to watch the humble apostrophe have its' dignity injured in this manner.

    ReplyDelete
  6. >the melancholy state of education in this
    > proud republic that I must conduct
    > this elementary review

    I would argue (and have) that it's a melancholy state of orthographical protocol that seems to require repeated tutorials to master these rules. The fact is, the system we have for when and when not to use the apostrophe is ridiculously complicated, and gets in the way every single day of what the ultimate purpose of writing is: to get information down on paper, real or virtual. If it seems that a majority (let's assume) of people who write English cannot seem to master these rules, where's the problem, with the people or with the rules? In my business (computers), if people can't seem to figure out how to use a program, you blame poor program design, not ill-educated users.

    For those who despair that their lessers cannot seem to master the rules for using the apostrophe, let me pose a few questions which, when answered, will undoubtedly help the afflicted to internalize the rules:

    1) If an apostrophe marks elision (e.g. "don't"), what is elided in the possessive that then requires an apostrophe?

    2) If you add "'s" to a noun to mark its possessive, why don't you do that for the possessive of "it"?

    ReplyDelete
  7. The Apostrophe Protection Society writes "Apostrophes are NEVER ever used to denote plurals!"

    They cite as an example the following.
    ("New CD's just in!" which should read "New CDs just in!")

    In your example shouldn't it be the following.
    ("all As in the editing class" and "aces and 8s"?

    ReplyDelete
  8. mike makes a good point about the difficulties people have using plurals. Like many things though, if grammar rules were still taught early and definitively, they would probably stick. Using plurals correctly (even for the Joneses!) has come naturally to me since I was young - just like basic maths does.
    However, I did not realise that an apostrophe could ever be used to make plurals. So if A's are ok, what about CD's and DVD's? Even if it is just individual letters and figures that work this way, it immediately complicates the issue.
    I can't comment about the state of plurals in the US, but here in Australia there appears to be an unstoppable, if inconsistent, slide towards using apostrophes. I don't know where that leaves the poor possessives...

    ReplyDelete
  9. You know you can't tell them apart when you say them. Dogs, dog's, dogs'

    Is it any wonder people make spelling errors? Lighten up on them.

    And please don't attack me; I did say they were errors. I just don't think they're harbingers of doom. Show a person who confuses "it is" with "its" (not "it's", "it is") and I will concede that he "doesn't know the difference" as opposed to "can't spell well".

    ReplyDelete
  10. FWIW, apostrophes have been used "incorrectly" throughout the history of English to mark plurals. Dryden did it consistently, for example. (Have a look at handwritten manuscripts from days of yore. You might be surprised at what you find for spelling and punctation.)

    As I say, it's just too confusing. More and earlier education is _not the answer_. A more logical system is the real answer. Writing ordinary English should not require a decade of study.

    PS German has the genitive -s, and they don't use an apostrophe. So far, they've done ok with that.

    PPS Apostrophes aren't grammar, they're just punctuation ...

    ReplyDelete
  11. "German has the genitive -s, and they don't use an apostrophe. So far, they've done ok with that."

    That's because most German nouns don't form their plural by adding -s. The English apostrophe distinguishes genitives from plurals. (In English, again unlike German, we also have many 3rd person singular verb forms that end in -s and look exactly like nouns.) But the apostrophe is also used to indicate contractions, which I suspect is why the genitive "its" is written without an apostrophe. Yes, it's confusing and we probably don't absolutely need the apostrophes, but they do help.

    ReplyDelete
  12. What's the YDS position on pluralising abbreviations and acronyms? I ask out of professional interest: I prefer to use an apostrophe, as with numbers, but I'm bucking the trend, which is to omit it in technical English. So, UFOs or UFO's?

    ReplyDelete
  13. You are wrong. The plural of A is As, not A's. An apostrophe for a plural is ALWAYS wrong.

    ReplyDelete