Problems with plurals and possessives

What problems can a writer have with plurals and possessives? We discussed some problems with plurals and possessives, such as the previous posts on possessive/reflexive pronouns and on the use of the apostrophe. The rule for making singular nouns plural or possessive is pretty straightforward: add s or es or ies, depending on the ending of the word:

For most words add s

cat

cats

For words ending in s, add es

fortress

fortresses

For words ending in y, add ies

baby

babies

Most people except perhaps people new to language learning (young children or non-native speakers) do not generally have trouble with special or irregular plural nouns – nouns that become plural by changing its spelling in other ways than adding an s. Here are a few examples.

singular forms

plural forms

child

children

wo/man

wo/men

knife

knives

goose

geese

There are also exotic plurals that may be familiar to many writers, but can sometimes cause trouble with subject-verb agreement. Patricia O’Conner (22) gives the first three words in the table as an example. I added the word data, which also can stump writers.

plural forms

singular forms

phenomena

phenomenon

tableaux (now also tableaus)

tableau

criteria

criterion  (criteria used as singular for over a century)

data

datum (now rare); (data – when used as an abstract mass noun)

As noted in the table, the singular form datum is now rare. Instead, as The Little, Brown Handbook points out, “a more common term such as fact, result, or figure is preferred” (733).

The plural form data appears to be singular, so writers often choose a singular verb form. However, data as a plural noun is more common in print because publishing style manuals insist on it as seen in these examples from the APA style blog:

Each datum matches the location of an object to a coordinate on the map.

Although we have compiled the results, these data are the focus of another report and are not described here.

Merriam-webster.com asserts that “data leads a life of its own quite independent of datum, of which it was originally the plural”: it now has two standard constructions – a plural noun (like earnings) and an abstract mass noun (like information).

In her discussion of nouns, Martha Kolln includes nouns with plural-only forms: scissors, shears, clippers, pants, trousers, slacks, shorts, glasses, spectacles (219). These words refer to things that are in two parts – “bifurcated, or branching” and “take the same verb form that other plural subjects do.” In addition, we usually use the plural pronoun when referring to them (making the pronoun agree with its antecedent):

I bought a new pair of shorts today; they’re navy blue.

I’ve lost my pliers; have you seen them?

(A common error is to say “give me a scissors.” This is wrong because scissors is plural and should be “give me a pair of scissors” or “give me the scissors.”)

Then there are the plural-in-form nouns which are sometimes singular in meaning. O’Conner classifies these under the title “The ics Files” because many of these words end in –ics (23): mathematics, economics, ethics, optics, politics. When you are using the word in a general way, for example as an academic discipline (mathematics) or as activities of governing (politics), it is singular:

Mathematics is my favorite subject.

Politics stinks,” said Sonny.

When you’re using an ­-ics word in a particular way, for example, as someone’s set of beliefs, it is plural:

The mathematics involved in the experiment are very theoretical.

“Sonny’s politics stink,” said Gopher.

Kolln, who provided some of the examples above along with O’Conner, states that a writer can use their intuitive knowledge of pronouns to test these nouns (219):

It (mathematics) is my favorite subject.

They (the mathematics involved in the experiment) are quite depressing.

There are some compound nouns – with or without hyphens – that can cause problems when switching from singular to plural forms; for instance, mother-in-law, court-martial, attorney general, crepe suzette. The plural ending is added to the root or the most important part of the compound. Consider these examples adapted from O’Conner:

Mothers-in-law like to attend courts-martial.

Those attorneys general ate all the crepes suzette.

Making names plural

Both O’Conner and Kolln discuss the problems writers have with making names plural.

O’Conner provides this “baffling” example with her commentary in square brackets (21):

In my daughter’s preschool class, there are two Larries [ouch!], three Jennifer’s

[oof!], and two Sanchez’ [ouch!].

Kolln further comments on the [mis]use of the apostrophe in plurals (218):

Fishing license’s sold here.

Now playing Tuesday’s at The Lounge.

The correct plurals in the above example sentences should be Larrys, Jennifers, Sanchezes, licenses, and Tuesdays.

The rule for making proper nouns plural – whether you’re dealing with a first name or a last name, is to add an s.

With names ending in s, sh, ch, x, or z, you add es to make it plural.

(But when a name ends in a final y, do not change it to ies.)

As we have seen, an apostrophe is not used to make a plural. However, Kolln provides an exception to this rule, and this is when we are discussing “letters or numbers that would be unreadable without the apostrophe” (218):

There are three t’s in my name.

This use has also been practiced with decades, though it is becoming common to see it written without the apostrophe:

The 1960’s [or 1960s] were troubled times for many people.

The difficulty with plurals and possessives in writing is that when we speak, we make no distinction between them – cats (plural), cat’s (singular possessive), cats’ (plural possessive) sound identical. This is why it’s easy to make mistakes in writing. As Kolln says, “The apostrophe is strictly an orthographic signal, a signal in the written language” (217).

To illustrate the rules in this post, I provide a chart adapted from the one in Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar (217), followed by her recommendations.

SINGULAR

PLURAL

SINGULAR

POSSESSIVE

PLURAL

POSSESSIVE

cat

cats

cat’s

cats’

treasure

treasures

treasure’s

treasures’

fortress

fortresses

fortress’s

fortresses’

church

churches

church’s

churches’

dish

dishes

dish’s

dishes’

Kolln sums it up this way:

“Probably the best rule of thumb to remember is that when you add an s sound, you add the letter s—in both plural and possessive: cat, cat’s, cats, cats’. Words that end with an s (or an s-like sound), such as fortress or church or dish, require a whole syllable for the plural, an ­–es: fortress/fortresses, church/churches, dish/dishes. But we write the singular possessive just as we do with words like cat: we simply add ’s: fortress’s, church’s, dish’s. For the plural possessive, we simply add the apostrophe to the plurals, as we do with cats’: fortresses’, churches’, dishes’ ” (218).

Plurals and possessives can cause problems for writers, especially as we have seen, because there is no distinction between the way they sound when spoken. This distinction is made in writing, however, based on the spelling of the noun and form required for your prose – a plural or possessive. The information and suggestions in this post can be a handy reference when you’re reviewing your writing for needed edits and corrections.

(Material and examples adapted from O’Conner, Woe is I; The Little, Brown Handbook; APA style blog; merriam-webster.com; Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar.)

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