Friday, July 15, 2011

An Apostrophe Does not a Plural Make

Plurals are formed by adding s or es to the root word. That’s it. Nothing else. This is a simple rule but apparently it’s a difficult one for some people to learn. When I see an apostrophe s instead of plural in a book, I think it’s a typo, but when I see several, I figure the author or editor doesn’t know how to form a plural. When I see misused apostrophes, I usually see many other grammatical errors too, which confirms my impression.
Here are a few examples:
One dog is a dog. Three dogs are dogs.
A single person named Jones is Jones. Two or more people named Jones are Joneses.
One potato, two potatoes 
Photostock image
One tomato, four tomatoes

Photo by Taoty

The Mertz family moved into the neighborhood. There are four Mertzes in the family and one mother-in-law, Mrs. Sartoris. The other Sartorises live in Timbuktu.
Wrong: The Jennings’ live across the street. The cricket’s are loud tonight.

Shall I go on to possessive, the way to show ownership? Might as well. This is where the apostrophe comes in. To show possession for a singular noun, add ’s.
The dog’s bone is buried there. Four dogs bones are buried in the garden.
The horse’s hooves kicked up dust in the ring.
The Mertzes house is at the end of the street. That’s Mary Mertz’s bicycle in the front yard.
This is true in most cases, but there are a few exceptions. The Chicago Manual of Style, which I use, says the possessive of singular nouns is shown by the addition of ’s except in a few cases, such as species and series, in which it’s generally better to use of as in Darwin’s The Origin of Species or of the as in the last game of the World Series.                                                                       
Right: Ms. Sprouse’s office
BK Photo
Wrong (or possibly AP style): Ms. Sprouse’ office
Someone may chime in with the AP Style (journalistic) on possessives. I think (but I’m not certain) it recommends adding only the apostrophe for the possessive of a noun ending in s. That style evolved in the interest of saving space in narrow newspaper columns.
That’s my rant for today. Does poor grammar turn you off? What makes you roll your eyes?

18 comments:

Judy Alter said...

Ellis, lots of forms of poor grammar set my teeth on edge, but my current rant is about the misue of the I and me. You wouldn't say "It pleased I" so why say "It pleased Jim and I"? I could dredge up a lot of others, including basic misspellings, but your rant is well taken and I'll let it rest there.

Polly said...

I use CMS, even though I find some of the 's at the end of an s word awkward. Or is it 'ses? Or is it apostrophe esses? Oh, forget it! For example, Mr. Louis's dinner. Mr. Louis is a chef, but Mr. Louis's dinner, when speaking, is awkward even if it's right. You still wouldn't say the dinner of Mr. Louis because that's more awkward. Maybe I should have named the chef Mr. John. That would have been smarter.

Barb Goffman said...

Hi. Nice column. Yes, AP style says that when a name ends in S, to show possessive, you just use the apostrophe. So:

Tess' homework is late. (Correct under AP style, incorrect under Chicago style.)

Tess's homework is late. (Correct under Chicago, not under AP.)

barb

Ellis Vidler said...

Judy, you're right--misuse of I and me is another problem area. I believe it started with people trying to sound more sophisticated. Little do they know!

Ellis Vidler said...

Polly, I pronounce the second s. Whether you say Louis or Louie, I still wouldn't say Mr. Louis dinner. I'd say Mr. Louis's dinner or Mr. Louie's dinner.
I have a character named Jennings, which is the same. It's Senator Jennings's bill, and that's the way I say it. But I'm a diehard CMS fan. ;)

Ellis Vidler said...

Barb, thanks for adding the AP style. I do think it's acceptable in literature as long as it's consistent. The problem comes when it goes back and forth.
I find AP less clear to read and sometimes have to stop and think about the meaning, but then, I'm not used to it.

Fran Stewart said...

You're right about the AP style, Ellis. Only an apostrophe after a word that ends in s.

I'm a freelance editor specializing in doctoral dissertations, so I've had lot of experience with APA.

As to the plurals,I like to see agreement with the verb: "A pair of wrens is raising babies on my front porch." Interestingly, people from England say "The committee are going to decide...," while Americans say "The committee is..."

Terry Odell said...

Consistency is the key if your publisher's house style follows one "rule" or the other. I try very hard to avoid giving characters names that end with S!

Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Kathleen Kaska said...

Very easy to understand, Ellis. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly.

Ellis Vidler said...

Fran, subject-verb agreement is often overlooked, but I don't see it as much as plural/apostrophe or me/I problems.
Just curious, but which style do you use for dissertations? I haven't edited one in years, and it was CMS on that one. Do they vary by school?

Ellis Vidler said...

Terry, I aim for consistency but try to keep in mind that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Emerson, I believe. ;)

Ellis Vidler said...

Kathleen, that's always nice to hear. I do double-check these things before I post. It's too easy to accept something you see frequently as correct.

Camille Minichino said...

The I/me error annoys me, especially from a supposedly educated person. "Thanks for the support you've given my wife and I," says the politician.

I asked my college-grad niece about her use of "me and my friends went out" and she gave the Ebonics argument that they know better, but use it anyway. Really?

Ellis Vidler said...

I guess that's a generation thing, Camille. I couldn't do it. The only way would be in dialogue for an uneducated character. I have friends who say "I got me a hot dog." I don't know if that's a localism, but it's jarring.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Poor grammar does turn me off.
I taught English and writing courses for many years and have always felt that good grammar was part of good writing.

Ellis Vidler said...

Jacqueline, I always picture grammar as the foundation under a house. Without a good foundation, the house cannot stand.

Anne MacKay said...

I'm writing a mystery that takes place in a figure skating environment. One of the terms commonly used to refer to a professional instructor is 'pro'. How would you pluralize that? I've been using 'pro's' because 'pros' does not come out right when you're trying to say it. Adding an 'e' to it doesn't look right, either, as in 'proes'.

Ellis Vidler said...

Anne,
I'd spell it pros, the same as in the pros and cons of the situation. I wouldn't add the e (proes) or the apostrophe. If you have doubts, look it up online in Merriam-Webster. I think they have a place to ask a question.