Friday, September 28, 2012

Apostrophes in plurals

There is a simple riposte that all grammarians are familiar with hearing. It goes something like this: "The rules are too complicated and who gives a stuff anyway? People know what I mean."

Boots: remarkably thick, even by cat standards
True, and I know what my cat means when he follows me into the kitchen and wraps his tail around my leg. He wants feeding. In fact, almost every attempt by my cat to engage my attention can be translated as "Feed me". 

So "They know what I mean" is only a valid argument if you aspire to no higher level of communication than my cat, who is remarkably stupid even by cat standards.

When it comes to apostrophes in plurals, those who say the rules are too complicated seem to have devised a rule of their own that is almost infinitely more convoluted than the real rule. As far as I can gather, it goes something like this:
No apostrophes in plurals, unless it's a foreign word, an abbreviation, an acronym, a word I don't know how to spell, a word that ends in a vowel that isn't 'e' or word that is in any way a bit funny or unusual
Poor me. I'm going to stick with the super-intellectual rule laid down by those Grammar Nazis (or is that Nazi's?)
No apostrophes in plurals
Admittedly, that's a simplified version. The full, long form is as follows:
No apostrophes in plurals. Ever
That includes abbreviations, which is much easier now that dots are considered fussy. Sorry if that's too complicated. Leave your WTF?s in the comments section.

Moral: The simpler the rule, the easier it is to devise something far more confusing


  1. Bonnie Prince CharlieSeptember 28, 2012 at 5:44 PM

    Ph.D.’s? I'd be interested in an alternative, unless you go all Guardian-style on me with the abominable PhDs.

  2. That's one reason why I don't put stops in abbreviations (see

    It's very rare that PhD needs a plural anyway. If it does, there's usually a way round the dilemma: how many people have three doctorates?

  3. This is one of several rules I claim to apply but in practice don't really. Consider these:

    Mind your ps and qs - and make sure you always dot your is and cross your ts.

    Hmm. Clearly, that won't do.

    So let's try italics, assuming they're available:

    Mind your ps and qs - and make sure you always dot your is and cross your ts.

    Hmm. Ugly is not the word. Let's try making the single letters uppercase, then:

    Mind your Ps and Qs - and make sure you always dot your Is and cross your Ts.

    Aha! No, wait. It may look better, but it now makes a complete nonsense of the metaphors: only lowercase p and q are easily confused, while uppercase I has no dot (except in Turkish) and although uppercase T does have a top crosspiece thingy, you can't really say it's crossed as such.

    I know! How about inverted commas?

    Mind your "p"s and "q"s - and make sure you always dot your "i"s and cross your "t"s.

    That would be an improvement, except no character other than a punctuation mark should ever be flush against the right-hand side of closing quotation marks. It looks horrible. Hideous. Yes, even worse than this:

    Mind your p's and q's - and make sure you always dot your i's and cross your t's.

    I know, I know. It flies in the face of an otherwise good rule, but isn't it visually by far the best option?

    Other contexts where this crops up are for exam grades ("two A's and a B") and when matters of spelling are at issue ("Why do so many people write 'Jimmy Savile' and 'Miliband' with two l's?")

    I've had vicious arguments with myself over this one for many years, and I still can't see a better solution than saying "Oh, sod it" and breaking the rule.

  4. There are apostrophes in plurals.

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