Grammar 101: Plurals and Possessives

What is it about that harmless little apostrophe that trips up so many people? People ask me often about issues regarding plurals and possessives (and especially the dreaded combo of a plural possessive!). The basic definitions are simple enough, right?

What is it about that harmless little apostrophe that trips up so many people? (Tweet)
What is it about that harmless little apostrophe that trips up so many people? People ask me often about issues regarding plurals and possessives (and especially the dreaded combo of a plural possessive!). The basic definitions are simple enough, right?  |  Jodi Brandon Editorial

Plural signifies more than one. (Tweet)
Possessive signifies ownership and belonging. (Tweet)

Yet this is one of those often-confused aspects of English, so this week we’re going old school — as in, elementary (middle?) school English class for a quick grammar lesson. Ready?

Plurals

To form a plural, you generally add an “s” or “es” (generally if it ends in s, z, or x) to the word. In the interest of this being an average-length blog post and not a novella, we’re not going to get into all of the exceptions (like children instead of childs, deer instead of deers, and so on).

Here are a couple examples:

The two Jims — Parente and Frederick — arrived at the party at the same time.

“The two Jim’s” wouldn’t make sense. No apostrophe needed!

 

I received two As and a B on my exams last semester.

With capital letters, we follow the normal rule to form a plural: add an “s.” (Note that this is NOT the case with lowercase letters. For those, you break the rule and add “ ’s.”)

 

There are three boxes packed.

The only time you’d see box’s and have it be correct would be if the boxes were in possession of something, like this: The box’s contents included picture frames and knick-knacks. (If we’re talking about multiple boxes, it would be: The boxes’ contents included picture frames and knick-knacks.)
 

Possessives

Here’s where our friend the apostrophe comes into play.

Here are a couple examples:

Alexis’s new car is blue.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (which folks in my profession refer to as the Bible of Book Publishing), the rule is the same as any other singular possessive. You write her name with possession just like you say it: Alexis’s. (Yes, I know it looks funny to those of us who aren’t editors.)

 

John’s wife’s name is Julie.

Two possessives in a row! Since both are singular, each gets an “ ’s” and we’re all set.  
 

Plural Possessives

Sometimes things get dicey when you have plural AND possessive.

The Smiths’ marriage seems to have weathered the storm of infertility.

There are two Smiths in the marriage (a husband and a wife, in this case), so this is a straightforward plural possessive. Make Smith plural by adding an “s” and then add the apostrophe to indicate the plural.

 

John’s and Bob’s wives’ names are both Julie.

What?! John and Bob don’t share a wife, so they each need to be made possessive; those are singular. There are, then, two wives, instead of one wife (in other words, two Julies), so we have plural possessive.
 

Do you see the pattern?

The apostrophe isn’t even used with plurals, with rare exceptions. (This is, after all, the English language we’re talking about, so there are ALWAYS exceptions.) Inserting an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong is one of the most common errors I see in writing. (Tweet) If you keep the basic definitions in mind when you’re writing, you should be just fine.