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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wordworking: P is for E. M. Caines

Plurals, Possessives, and Plural Possessives

E.M. Caines is my newest agency sister and as I type this post I'm beta-ing her fairytale retelling. When I posted a hyphen question on twitter last month, she swooped in and set me straight--and with so much know how I knew I had to have her for A to Z. 

Take it away E. M. Caines.

I originally had this brilliant notion that I would write about possessives, and then I said, “Yes! Plural possessives!” (Double the P, double the fun.)
But as I contemplated how to organize my thoughts, I began noticing issues within business communications that seriously rankled me. Plurals were incorrectly written. Apostrophes were misused, giving possession to things that were not meant to have possession. And don’t get me started on what happened when plurals needed to take possession of something.
And that’s when I decided that writing about plural possessives may require some analysis of its parts, too.
So let’s start with plurals.
According to, plural is defined thus: consisting of, containing, or pertaining to more than one.
Easy enough. If there is more than one, it is now plural.
But what happens when you need to write the plural of an abbreviation? What then, smarty pants?
According to the APA Publication Manual: To form the plural of most abbreviations and statistical symbols, add s alone, but not italicized, without an apostrophe.
Basically, just add an s. Don’t use an apostrophe. Don’t try to make it cute. Just add an s.
1 IQ; 2 IQs
1 PhD; 2 PhDs
The exceptions to this rule are for units of measure (you will never write “ins,” for example, for “inches”).
Now here’s a tricky one for you: What do you do when you’re talking about a family whose last name ends with an s?
Think carefully, but you’d better get this right because my surname ends with an s.

If you said you would just add an es after the name, you are correct! And if you hung out with my family for an afternoon, you could say you spent time with the Caineses.
Yes, I know it looks weird. But it’s correct. I promise.
Right, then. So possessives are next.
Singular possessives are fairly easy, or they should be. In most cases, you just add an apostrophe and s to the end of the word or name. The exception, of course, is the pronoun it. It does not get an apostrophe when it takes possession. I’m not entirely sure why; I think it’s so that he and she don’t get jealous, because their possessive forms don’t include apostrophes, either. (I made you think about that, didn’t I?) But we’ve all heard the rule about how to check if you should use its or it’s, and this isn’t the place to bore you with it (again).
No, far more interesting is the question of how to handle the possessive form when someone’s name ends with an s. Do you know what to do?

Right! Add an apostrophe and s to the end of the name. So that jacket that belongs to Francis? It’s Francis’s jacket. And the book that Thomas owns? It’s Thomas’s book.
Again, it looks funny, but it’s correct. (I swear! Strunk & White even say so!)
Now, if you can master plurals (just add an s or an es at the end of the word) and you can master possessives (add an apostrophe and s to the end of the word), plural possessives are easy peasy. Just brace yourselves, because the rule is a doozy.

Add an apostrophe to the end of the word.
I know! It’s crazy! After all the ridiculous rules leading up to the main event, it’s kind of anticlimactic, don’t you think?
So that bathroom belonging to many girls? It’s the girls’ bathroom. And the wailing you hear from many babies? It’s the babies’ cries. And if you happen to go to a house owned by the Collins family, you’d be going to the Collinses’ house.

See how easy that was? Now you’re ready to hobnob at the Caineses’ next grammar party! But if you go to a party hosted by Michael Caine and his brood, it would be the Caines’ party. And that’s a totally different crowd.

Isn't E. M. Caines a blast? Check out her blog and twitter feed.


  1. Great topic and will certainly visit E.M. Caines.


  2. I think I'm gonna have to look this one up when I use it. Oy.

    1. Yup, I look this one up every time. Confusing.

  3. Agreed on the singular possessives of names ending in s! That's my default, though I still check style guidelines whenever necessary. There's still a lot of folks who think its should always be "James'" and never "James's."

    1. Interesting. I know style guides differ, so whatever you choose, be consistent, right?

  4. I'm going to save these and send them to people oh-so-subtly. LOL

  5. Great job on tackling that can 'o worms ;)

  6. They drive me potty as well but then I go and make the same mistakes, silly. We spell words differently, which amazes me, I'm English and keep getting told off for my bad spelling but it's because I don't spell like English words are spelt in America. (sorry badly put)
    maggie at expat brazil