Thursday, February 26, 2009

Those pesky apostrophes

Three people work in my office. We all have last names that end with the letter "s."

Yesterday we had a spirited discussion (i.e. screaming match) about forming the plural of names like ours.

Dave, citing some long-forgotten college instructor and textbook, insisted that a plural is formed by adding an apostrophe, as in "The Marcus' are going on vacation."

I said that Dave was an idiot, and insisted that except for a few specific cases, the apostrophe indicates POSSESSION, not plural. I said the correct form was "The Marcuses are going on vacation."

In print but not in speech, that construction could be ambiguous, with readers wondering if the singular name is "Marcus" or "Marcuse."

Gary said he had no opinion and tried to avoid sentences where a plural of his last name would be necessary.

Dave demanded that I prove I was right (but he admitted that he wouldn't necessarily accept any authority I would cite).

So, for Dave or anyone else who cares, here are the rules I choose to accept:

When a family name (a proper noun) is pluralized, we almost always simply add an "s." So we go to visit the Smiths, the Kennedys, the Grays, etc. When a family name ends in s, x, ch, sh, or z, however, we form the plural by adding "es" as in the Marches, the Joneses, the Maddoxes, the Bushes, the Rodriguezes. Do not form a family name plural by using an apostrophe; that device is reserved for creating possessive forms.

When a proper noun that ends in "s" needs a plural AND a possessive, the result looks weird, as in "That's the Marcuses' house."

BUT, I might choose to avoid the weirdness and use the name-noun as an adjective: "That's the Marcus house."

When a proper noun ends in an "s" with a hard "z" sound, we don't add any ending to form the plural: "The Chambers are coming to dinner" (not the Chamberses); "The Hodges used to live here" (not the Hodgeses). There are exceptions even to this: we say "The Joneses are coming over," and we'd probably write "The Stevenses are coming, too."

We use an apostrophe to create plural forms in two limited situations: for pluralized letters of the alphabet and when we are trying to create the plural form of a word that refers to the word itself. Here we also should italicize this "word as word," but not the 's ending that belongs to it.

Do not use the apostrophe + s to create the plural of acronyms (pronounceable abbreviations such as laser and IRA and URL) and other abbreviations. (A possible exception to this last rule is an acronym that ends in "S": "We filed four NOS's in that folder.")

Jeffrey got four A's on his last report card.
Towanda learned very quickly to mind her p's and q's.
You have fifteen and's in that last paragraph.

We do not use an apostrophe to create plurals in the following:

The 1890s in Europe are widely regarded as years of social decadence.
I have prepared 1099s for the entire staff.
Rosa and her brother have identical IQs, and they both have PhDs from Harvard.
She has over 400 URLs in her bookmark file.

Unfortunately, spell-checking software is not perfect. Microsoft Word thinks "Marcuses" is wrong, but it’s right. Word accepts “buses” but not “Marcuses.” “Busses” is also an accepted plural of bus, but I don’t accept “Marcusses.”)

(info from Capital Community College, Hartford CT)

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