Category Archives: plurals

Now I Know My ABCs

I have a feeling this one bugs me more than it bugs most people.

Letters written as letters should not be pluralized with an apostrophe and an s. It makes no sense at all to say you got all A’s and B’s on your report card, or that your daughter had better learn to mind her P’s and Q’s. An apostrophe has two general uses: First, it indicates POSSESSION of something, as in Please put the ribbons in Team D’s box. Second, it indicates the REMOVAL OF LETTERS in a contraction, as in I don’t know where I put it (in this case, the apostrophe indicates the removal of the O in not) or ...o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave (in this case, the apostrophe indicates the removal of a v).

People want to use apostrophes when pluralizing letters written as letters because they’re worried others might try to READ the letters and get confused. For consonants, this is an unnecessary worry, because readers are quick to see that Cs is not a word, and therefore should be read as “more than one C.” For vowels, I’ll grant that a sentence can be confusing if an apostrophe is not used, as in “Students who got As are exempt from this assignment.” One solution to this problem is to use italics, which one sees quite often. If you do this, italicize the letter but not the S that pluralizes it. Another way to deal with this is to rewrite the sentence, so you have something like Any student who received an A is exempt from this assignment.

I must confess that I have a near-daily conflict with this issue, because my favorite Major League Baseball team is the one that plays in Oakland. Long known as the Athletics (which presents a completely different grammatical issue), the team was officially called the A’s in the 1970s, ‘though the nickname had been in use for decades. Since the logo on the baseball caps features the A with the apostrophe, I commit a major act of hypocrisy every time I wear the team’s clothing. In my written communication, though, I almost always insist on referring to the team as the Athletics in order to avoid this awful situation.

Since it makes no sense AT ALL to use an apostrophe this way, I often wonder how the apostrophe got chosen for this misuse. I mean, why not a period, as in straight A.s? I know that looks odd to you, but it looks just as odd to me to put an apostrophe there. Thankfully, with the prevalence of wordprocessors comes the ease of italicizing, so if you stick to italics for those odd situations and nothing at all for the consonants, you should be FINE. Please stop with the apostrophes!

Keeping up with the Joneses, the Millers, the Murphys, and the Hos.

Let us talk today about the many ways people mess up the pluralizing of their own last names. Listen: It’s actually quite simple. You turn a name into a plural the same way you turn ANYTHING ELSE into a plural, with one small exception. As you know, the way you pluralize almost everything in the English language is to add an S to the end of the word. If the word already ends in S, you add ES. So PENCIL becomes PENCILS, and MESS becomes MESSES.

You do the same thing to last names! Miller doesn’t end with S, so you add an S to make it the whole family: Millers. Jones does end with S, so you add ES to make it the whole family: Joneses. One Au might bring her mom, so now you have two Aus at the party, and if they bring their cousins from the Ho family, you now have Aus and Hos. I know it looks funny to you, but that’s because people keep messing it up!

I am going to repeat myself just to emphasize the point: Add an S if the name doesn’t end with S. Add an ES if the name does end with an S.

Okay, are you ready for the one small exception? The rules of grammar don’t apply if applying them changes the name. One common rule in English says that words ending with Y are pluralized by removing Y and adding IES, so that fly becomes flies, jalopy becomes jalopies, and registry becomes registries. Applying this rule to a name is not allowed, because it changes the name: The Murphys are coming over for Christmas dinner, not the Murphies.

Similarly, if someone’s name is Mr. Goose, you do not refer to his family as the Geese (unless, of course, they are actually a family of waterfowl), and if your boss is Mr. Mouse, you don’t invite the Mice over for dinner. It might sound weird, but you’d call them the Gooses and the Mouses.

More on names (especially plural possessives!) later.