The previous edition of Preposterous Apostrophes considered the formation of possessives. This is probably the main usage of apostrophes in English, since contractions are generally frowned upon in formal writing, and apostrophes are often omitted from contractions in ephemeral electronic communications. (I admit that I walk an ambiguous line myself, typing Ill, wont, cant, and well in place of I’ll, etc. in text messages, because getting apostrophes in the message requires you to press a complicated combination of buttons, and I’m really not that dexterous.) However, there are a variety of other usages of apostrophes, and one of these is in pluralization. When to use an apostrophe in a plural is a tough nut to crack, and of course those who know how to do it take great glee in putting down those who don’t. Most any prescriptivist you meet will have at the ready a set of examples of what is known as the greengrocer’s apostrophe: ‘s used to form a plural when just s is called for.

Just a quick refresher on pluralization: English nouns have fascinatingly convoluted plural forms. Most nouns take an -s, some take an -es, and some don’t change at all. That’s all pretty simple and standardized. But then come the historical relics, common nouns that followed non-productive means of pluralization, like umlaut (mouse to mice, for example) or Greek/Latin paradigms (antennae, data, radii, and the like). And then there are the really weird cases, like the idea that some nouns ending in o are pluralized with -s while others are pluralized with -es. I can’t keep these all that straight myself, but potatoes outnumbers potatos 38:1 on Google while radios outnumbers radioes 1500:1, so it looks like people on the whole are aware of this -o pluralization distinction.

You’ll note that despite all of these weird pluralization methods, for common nouns there is nothing that gets pluralized with ‘s. ‘s is reserved for possessives. So a sign reading We have apple’s is incorrect, and potentially (although almost never in practice) ambiguous. The same is true for proper names – ‘s is again reserved for possessives. The Doyles live at my house, which one could refer to as the Doyles’ house — whereas my apartment is Doyle’s because only one Doyle lives there.

Boring, boring stuff. The fun comes, the fur flies, and the apostrophes arise when you’re dealing with special nouns like numerals, letters, abbreviations, and acronyms. Consider the idiom:

(1)a. Mind your p’s and q’s
(1)b. Mind your ps and qs

(1)b just looks weird to me, and it seems to be pretty well agreed-upon that it’s proper to use ‘s to pluralize a letter — all of the grammar books I read through that weighed in on this said that plurals of letters need the ‘s, although one (Harbrace College Handbook) said that only lowercase letters get the apostrophe. This jibes with my perception of general usage; Google shows a 4:1 preference for apostrophes in this idiom, and it looks like most of the results without apostrophes use uppercase P and Q. Still nothing very contentious. How about abbreviations? Abbreviations with periods take ‘s when pluralized, which is probably because they look more awkward without apostrophes:

(2)a. T.V.’s, Ph.D.’s, etc.’s vs. (2)b. T.V.s, Ph.D.s, etc.s

This is the opinion of all the books I read, and looking up actual usage data is going to be a lot more labor than I’m prepared to expend. Suffice it to say that I avoid using periods in pluralized abbreviations because they look atrocious no matter how you write them. (The Associated Press Stylebook & Libel Manual seems to favor the (2)b pluralization method, as it has an entry listed under Ph.D.s, but the book does not, to my knowledge come out one way or the other on this point in general.)

I’m sorry it took so long — I assure you I was as bored as you during those examples — but at last we come to three controversial points: how does one pluralize numerals, abbreviations without periods, and “words used as words”? By “words used as words” I mean cases where you are pluralizing the word itself, not the object to which the word refers. For instance, if you’re proof-reading a paper that uses the word the seventy times, should you say:

(3)a. The paper contains 70 the’s.
(3)b. The paper contains 70 thes.

(3)a is favored by most of the books I read, with one (Harbrace College Handbook again) requiring an apostrophe only if confusion would result from not using an apostrophe, and another (The Associated Press Stylebook & Libel Manual) saying that an apostrophe should never be used with words used as words (although its example puts double quotes around the words – “ifs,” “ands” and “buts”). However, a quick usage survey shows that ifs ands and buts beats out if’s and’s and but’s 10:1 on Google. In my opinion, it depends on how you like to refer to words as words. I tend to italicize them, so that forces me to use an apostrophe in the plural. Either way, someone’s got your back.

Same thing with numerals. No one uses apostrophes to pluralize numbers (e.g., I’ve been rolling fives and sixes all day), but some people do for numerals (e.g., I’ve been rolling 7’s and 11’s). Various prescriptions fall on different sides of the fence on this one, with Webster’s Third calling for apostrophes and the AP demanding a lack of apostrophes. I usually omit the apostrophes, I think, but neither way seems odd to me. Again, follow your heart.

And lastly, what about abbreviations that don’t use periods (TV, CD-ROM, PhD)? Some of the stuff I’ve read demands a -s pluralization (AP Stylebook, College Writer’s Reference), some demands a ‘s pluralization (Woe is I), and some says that both are fine (Harbrace College Handbook). You’re free to handle these cases how you want, I think.

So, in summary, pluralize these as follows:

most nouns: no apostrophe
lowercase letters: apostrophe
uppercase letters: either
words as words: either
numerals: either
abbreviations ending in periods: apostrophe
abbreviations without periods: either

Now, if we apply these results to the Apostrophe Protection Society’s page I linked to above about misuse of the apostrophe, it turns out that a few of the complaints are (surprise!) spurious:

Royal College of GP’s
1000’s of roll ends
We pay cash for your TV’s VCR’s Home Hifi
Copy your DVD’s
Don’ts / Do’s

Each of these falls completely within the realm of acceptable apostrophe usage, as defined by the grammar books I am familiar with. Sorry guys! You’ll have to turn your righteous indignation elsewhere!


The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands: