Saturday, October 10, 2009


It's become quite common recently (unless this is the recency illusion striking again) for people to get confused and use apostrophes in plural forms, e.g., dog's for dogs. I'm not usually one to criticize non-standard usages, but this one has me puzzled. How do people get confused about this? 's is essentially never used in the plural, except for capitalized acronyms which haven't been lexicalized, and even then I think only MLA recommends using 's. So it's not a case of people being unsure when to use it for plurals and when not to; the rule is never use them.

So why is everyone so confused? The nature of this error makes it extremely difficult to research, since you have to hand pick the true instances, as opposed to the (still) more common genetive 's. I did find this gem through a google search: Hey guy's. I was wondaring do you love dog's or cat's? I like dog's!!! Please say dog's. Dog's rock! (Keep in mind that this was on what appears to be a forum for pre-adolescents and younger people in general.) In this case it seems the poster has internalized the rule as being that plural morphology in English is always 's. But as I said before, since this is never true, how to people get confused? My guess is simply interference from the genitive. I know from experience that people have trouble figuring out the difference between guy's and guys' (or guys's). Thus the confusion is not a grammatical one based on what plural marker to use, but a typographic one, in that people often see 's after a noun, and somehow they generalized it to plural marking.

I'd be interested in researching this further, but I'm at a loss for how to do a search for forms.


vp said...

So why is everyone so confused?

Presumably because words are stored by the brain in phonetic, rather than written form. For regular nouns (e.g. "dog"), the singular possessive, plural and plural possessive are all phonetically the same ("dogs", "dog's", and "dogs'", all pronounced /dɒgz/).

The rule about using apostrophes to denote possessives but not plurals is quite recent, by the way. In Shakespeare's time apostrophes were usually not used for either, and if used at all, they are as likely to be used for the plural as the possessive.

By the way, "'s" is used in the spelling of the possessives of irregular plurals, e.g. "men's", "children's".

kevin said...

@vp: ...which is exactly why the apostrophe discrepancy doesn't matter. I'm still hung up on it, though, and I can't help my automatic irritation when I see "dog's" as a plural, but vp's got a good point about the recency of using apostrophes for the genitive. And though such mistakes give the writers a semblance of illiteracy, they don't lead to ambiguity or confusion (except in a small number of cases, I'm sure). Since the apostrophe has nothing to do with speech, it can't possibly interfere in that regard.

Great blog, Ryan. I keep coming back to find interesting content.

Anonymous said...

What's strange to me is that it's something extra. When people do that (which I didn't even know happened) it's as if they have some sort of secret rule, because it seems so much simpler to not put anything at all...
maybe you should also explore the use of "mine's." Although that makes more sense because the rule is just, "to make something possessive add an "'s."
So what's the rule for the other use??
Totally bizarre. I suppose you could, uh, ask people?

Anonymous said...

This is pretty interesting:

I'll admit, when I'm pluralizing a single letter like "P," I do add an apostrophe. I don't know why, it just looks right to me? Maybe people are just carrying over this idea?

mrtom said...

In the past, until the 18th century an apostrophe was used to make the plural of nouns borrowed from other languages, but only these ending with a vowel. Do we have to do with regress? ;)

Nina said...

Hypercorrection. That's my bet.

Rob said...

I'll go with Nina, who says 's as plural marker is due to hyper-correction, like when people say "between you and I."
And the temptation to use 's after single letters (Maria) may have something to do with the appearance of Ps and Qs. I try to write acronyms (SOSs, RSVs)without an apostrophe, which doesn't seem quite so odd. Who's to set the rules?