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Tricky Plurals (Part 2)

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On rare occasions, I get a letter where the attempt to pluralize my surname ends up being a grotesque error: The Yate’s. Though I have never extended my research project in an effort to explain these errors, I’m confident they’re a result of panic taking over when the writer has no confidence in a rule.

In general, people tend to get into a swivet when apostrophes are added to nouns that end in ‘s.’ So let’s take the time to review the rule.

To get clear, apostrophes are used to form contractions (such as it’s, can’t, or wouldn’t) as well as to show possession (as in “That is my father’s car”). We are dealing with the second use in this post.

Let’s start first with nouns that don’t end in ‘s’.’ If the noun is singular, you add ‘s to the end in order to denote possession. If the noun is plural, you need the apostrophe only. For example:

 

The man’s wallet is on the desk.

The ladies’ bridge game is cancelled. (the singular, of course, is ‘lady’)

 

This is old hat, I suspect.

Typically, style guides tell you to use an apostrophe after famous names that end in ‘s,’ such as Jesus or Achilles. But for less exalted names—to show that the car belongs to Chris, for example—the teaching has been, until quite recently, to treat them the same as other nouns, namely to show possession by adding ‘s. A sentence would then read, “Chris’s car broke down on the bridge the other night.”

This is the point where, in my experience, most people look upon such a construction and say, “that’s weird” or “that just doesn’t look right.” This reaction is almost certainly based on tricks played by the double ‘s’ and the havoc these tricks wreak on the writer’s confidence in the rules of punctuation. English is not a stagnant language, though, and it is now acceptable to write either Chris’ car or Chris’s car. The challenge to the writer is to be consistent. That is, you need to pick one approach and stay with it throughout your writing.

Showing possession of a plural should be a two-step process, and the trick is not to allow yourself to be tripped up by nouns that end in ‘s.’ So, if I am describing my car, we now know I have two options:

 

Yates’s car

Yates’ car

 

Notice here that whichever option I choose, the apostrophe comes after the final ‘s’ of ‘Yates.’ The central problem with the example at the beginning of this post is that the writer did not leave the surname intact as an autonomous unit. “Yate” has no value as a name.

If I want to describe the home in which all of my family members live, the first thing I need to do is write the plural of my surname: Yateses. Then, to show possession, I follow the rule for plurals (add an apostrophe only). Finally, I compose a sentence:

 

The Yateses’ home is yellow.

 

Is your message incoherent if you write, “The Yates’ home is yellow”? No. Seldom does a mistake in punctuation lead to this outcome. The issue here has more to do with enhancing precision in your writing. It begs the question, which Yates?

Precision may start small at first, but you are ultimately working to tighten up all of your writing. Furthermore, you will find that the small things combine to play a big role in helping your writing become more precise. Your time in learning the rules will be not be in vain.

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