I indicated last week that I was willing to risk the fall of civilization by accepting the modern usage of “literally” to mean “not literally”. The risk is small. If I were doing QA on the use of the English language as a means of destroying civilization, and time or budgetary constraints forced a reduction in test scope, that would be among the first tests to be omitted.
But there’s another trend in English usage that’s of much greater risk. That’s the greengrocers’ apostrophe, and I am not going to compromise on that! Get your plurals correct or risk my wrath!
“Oh, come on,” I hear you say. “Is there really such a big risk in a few extra apostrophe’s? What doe’s it matter if I add an apostrophe in writing plural’s?”
To which I reply “AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaargh!!!!!”
Yes, there is a risk. Not only are you wasting time, effort, and ink, but you are also decreasing your readers’ ability to understand you.
The rules for making a word plural are simple:
1) Add an es if the word ends in s, sh, ch, x, or z.
2) Otherwise, add an s.
One bus, two buses
One fox, two foxes
One brunch, two brunches
One bust, two busts
One moose, two mooses
One mouth, two mouths
Watch out for irregular words, though. Some words use non-standard plural forms (one mouse, two mice) or the same word for both singular and plural (one deer, two deer). It’s amazing how few people will notice if you slip up, as long as you use the correct standard form, so be careful.
Please note that there are no apostrophes in any of those plurals. That’s because the apostrophe is used to indicate a relationship between two things: a relationship of ownership or possession. (Note: the apostrophe is also used for contractions (leaving out letters), but that’s a subject for another time.) The rule of thumb to use for possession is that if the relationship can be stated using the phrase “of the”, it can also be stated using an apostrophe.
The rules here are also simple:
1) Add ‘ if the word ends in s.
2) Otherwise, add ‘s.
The drivers of the bus or the bus’ drivers
The scale of the fish or the fish’s scale
The tails of the foxes or the foxes’ tails
“Free of the bananas” makes no sense, so not “the banana’s free” (or worse yet, “free banana’s”)
That’s really not so difficult, right? Right.
And it matters. Consider these possible newspaper headlines:
- Bay Bridge Bolt’s Break
- Bay Bridge Bolts Break
The first tells us that one of the bolts on the bridge has had a break. We’ll have to read the article to find out whether the bolt has snapped or won the lottery, but either way, it’s only one bolt.
The second tells us that whatever happened, it happened to more than one bolt. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be driving across the bridge, I want to know how many of the bolts have retired to Hawaii.
So now you know the rules and you have no excuse for misusing your apostrophes. Henceforth, violators will be sentenced to hang by their ears’.
Uh… ears’ lobes! Yeah, that’s it!
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