Below: Use of A, An, and The in Series

English Plus+ News, December 2001

When Do I Make Plurals by Adding Apostrophe S?

Questions You Asked

This issue is devoted to questions that you have asked. As a classroom teacher, I find that if one student has a question, the chances are pretty good that other students have the same question. Perhaps some of the questions and answers here will help you.

Making Plurals with Apostrophes

The first one I probably get more frequently than any other question. I certainly observe the misuse or misunderstanding of this one more than any other. The question is asked a number of different ways, so I will ask it in the most direct way that I know how: When are apostrophes used to make words plural?

The simple answer is this: virtually never.

Apostrophes are normally used for two reasons: to show missing letters in contractions as in can't or you'll, and with an s to make a possessive of any noun or any indefinite pronoun as Bill's car or everyone's friend.

Adding an s without an apostrophe normally means one of two things: a noun is being made plural as in many rivers, or a verb is being made third person singular present tense as in he runs.

The Only Times this Happens

The only time when adding apostrophe s to make something plural is when you are working with numbers written as numbers or with words, letters, numbers, or symbols as themselves. An example of working with numbers written as numbers would be if you were referring to the 1990's. In most standard writing this would be written out in words: the nineteen nineties. You use the apostrophe to separate the number from the letter to show the letter is not part of the number.

The second case would look something like this: his 7's look like 2's. In this case as well, the apostrophe shows that the s is not part of the root. Please note that in the second case the word, letter, number, or symbol is always italicized or underlined. That shows us that we are referring to the word, letter, number, or symbol as themselves, not according to what they mean. For more on this see the Grammar Slammer entry "Underlining Items which Name Themselves" or online at

That's all.

Making Plurals of Names

If you want to make a name plural, it follows the same spelling rule as any other kind of noun. So we write that I live next door to the Smiths. No apostrophe--no letter is left out, the word is not possessive. We would also write that the Smiths live next to the Joneses. Here -es is added to Jones because the singular word ends in an s, just like we make dresses from dress.

Smith with an apostrophe s is possessive, just like any other noun. We could say I am Mr. Smith's neighbor. That is the normal rule for making possessives. There is nothing different about it because it is a name. If Smith is plural and possessive, we would follow the same pattern that we use for any other nouns: I am the Smiths' neighbor.

If the name ends with an s, the same possessive and plural rules apply to the name as to any other noun. So we say Mr. Smith is Mr. Jones' neighbor, or Mr. Smith is Mr. Jones's neighbor, depending on how we pronounce it. Be consistent, whichever way you choose. If Jones is plural, add an apostrophe after the plural form, since we never pronounce a word "Joneseses." We would write Mr. Smith is the Joneses' neighbor.

The only practice that is different is with numbers or with italicized or underlined words, letters, numbers, or symbols that name themselves.

The Difference Between Definite and Indefinite

Here are two questions that both involve the difference between a/an and the.

Which of the following three conference titles is most correct:

(1) The Origins, Development, and Future of Earthquake Engineering

(2) The Origins, the Development, and the Future of Earthquake Engineering

(3) Origins, Development, and Future of Earthquake Engineering

The first two mean exactly the same thing. In a series of nouns in English, if there is an article or adjective before the first item only, the article or adjective is understood to be modifying all the nouns in the series. Therefore, the first and second are saying the same thing. The only reason to use the second would be for emphasis.

Number three is nearly the same, but without the article the, we cannot be sure that the nouns are definite. In many cases the terms the origins of earthquake engineering and origins of earthquake engineering would mean the same. The latter is less definite, however, and does suggest that it might not be as specific or comprehensive as the former. If the nouns in the title were singular, it would be more obvious. There is a difference between an origin and the origin.

Which is correct? As with so many things in grammar, all three are correct. It depends on what you mean and what you want to emphasize.

Oliver Sudden?

Another writer asked: "I have a quick question for you that's been driving me crazy. Which is correct: 'All of a sudden' ('I was walking down the street, when all of a sudden...') or 'All of the sudden'?"

All of a sudden makes the most sense. A is an indefinite article and fits better here. If it were the sudden, that would suggest something definite, something that we already knew about; therefore, it would not be sudden!

By the way, this is about the only time that the word sudden is used as a noun. It really is an idiom, similar to all at once, and a is the article used in the idiom here.

We wish all our readers and customers the best for 2002.
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