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Do Apostrophes Make Plurals? Rarely

@ ProofreadingPal
March 31, 2023
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Have you noticed how often apostrophes get misused on signs? Signs with store names; signs displaying messages for stores, churches, and schools; signs written and posted by individuals; signs in the lunchrooms at offices, and so many more. Sure, some words are often misspelled, bad subject-verb agreement is everywhere, but people seriously need a lesson about apostrophes.

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A common problem with apostrophe use is using apostrophes to form plural nouns instead of sticking an “s” on there like people are supposed to.

Fun Fact: Mistakes forming plurals with apostrophes are so common on grocery signs that this incorrect apostrophe use has actually been given the name the “grocer’s apostrophe.”

What You Need to Know

Knowing two basic grammar facts will help you avoid this type of error:

  1. For most regular nouns,* add just an -s or -es to form a plural: avocados, taxis, dogs, bikes, dresses, hexes, heroes, detoxes.
  2. Use apostrophes to form possessive nouns (the dog’s collar, the dress’s buttons) and contractions (don’t = do not, I’m = I am). (Read here how to know to use the apostrophe

If you follow these two rules, you’re going to avoid 99% of errors with plural nouns and apostrophes. (That 1% is mostly irregular nouns that form plurals in different ways, like ox-oxen, child-children, and fish-fish.)

A Few More Exceptions

Unfortunately for everyone’s understanding and correct application of the rules, a few exceptions to the rule about not using apostrophes to form plurals exist. Why? Because this is English we’re talking about.

You do use an apostrophe to form a plural in the following situations:

  • With lowercase letters: Just adding a lowercase “s” to a single lowercase letter (e.g., ss, ps) might not seem to obviously indicate the plural of the letter itself. This would be particularly true if the lowercase letter forms a word if you add an s, as in “is” and “us.” So, do use an “‘s” to form plurals in this case.

Example: Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

  • With abbreviations containing internal periods: This would be things like Ph.D.’s. and M.A.’s. Note that style guides may recommend leaving periods out of abbreviations, like PhDs and MAs. Check your style guide to be sure what’s required in your case.

Example: The genius professor has two M.D.’s and three M.F.A.’s.

  • When it just looks confusing otherwise: As much as we here at ProofreadingPal rely on the authority of style guides like Chicago and APA, sometimes grammar is a judgment call. If you’re writing about what should and shouldn’t be done, a list of “dos and don’ts” may be technically correct but just look weird. Because the goal of grammar is to communicate clearly, you are allowed to add an apostrophe for a plural when you really need to.

Example: They said I could not do that, but they’re always giving me not’s whenever I ask. How about a few maybe’s?

Why Is This Issue Common?

I couldn’t help but wonder why errors using apostrophes to form plurals are so common. There has to be some history to this, a reason related to language change of some sort. One source suggests the grocer’s apostrophe became common because English language learners overused the apostrophe in a sort of overcorrection/overcompensation. Seems somewhat plausible, and people do like to over use punctuation (especially “scare quotes”).

Another source wonders whether perhaps grocers in particular used the apostrophe to signal a price difference between by weight and per each, so “apple’s $1” would mean “apple, $1 each.” This seems like a stretch to me,and also would mean that grocers have greater influence than I think they do in real life.

The most plausible explanation I read about was that printers in the 1600s started using an apostrophe in plurals of nouns ending with vowels, like hero’s or drama’s. The historical and practical nature of this explanation appeals, I think.

No matter the reason, I cannot stress the importance of the two facts I listed above about plurals and apostrophe use and ignoring advice you hear to the contrary. And don’t forget to turn to ProofreadingPal for grammar help whenever you’re in doubt.

Sarah P.

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