Grammar Tip #6: Plurals and Apostrophes

I have a job marking students’ papers this fall, and one of the most common errors I see is the misuse of apostrophes in plurals. More often than not, students will insert unneccessary apostrophes. I imagine them saying to themselves, “Does this take an apostrophe? I’m not sure, because no one ever taught me. Oh well, I’ll throw one in. Better safe than sorry.”

In most cases, a simple “s” forms a plural. No apostrophe needed. So we write:

4 arms
27 cash registers
18 boys
5 trucks

(I am not sure what this adds up to, but the point is that there are no apostrophes.)

And, contrary to popular belief, we do not use an apostrophe in the plural forms of proper names. So the cute carved and painted wooden signs outside houses that say, “The Smith’s” or “The Cohen’s” are WRONG. Even if the signs were intended to indicate the possessive–i.e. “The Smiths’ House” or “The Cohens’ Cottage”–the apostrophe is still in the wrong place. But that is another topic.

These are the only rare cases where an apostrophe is required along with the “s”:

1. Words used as words:
When you are talking about a certain word, and put it in quotations, the plural is formed with an apostrophe. For example:

Sarah loves to use the word “wrong.” How many “wrong’s” do you think there are on this whole website?


His letter to his lover was full of meaningless “I love you’s.”

If you use italics to indicate a word as a word, you just use a roman (non-italicized) “s” to form the plural:

i love you

2. Abbreviations with more than one period:

Bob just has one B.A., but Shelly was in school for decades and ended up with two B.A.’s and an M.A. too.

Abbreviations with just one period, like “ed.” for “editor” just have an “s” added before the period, like so: “eds.”

3. Letters used as letters:
An example of a letter used as a letter would be:

The plural is usually formed by adding an “s.”

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, letters used as letters should be written in italics, and the plural is then formed by adding a roman “s.”

But when you use roman type or quotation marks, the plural is formed with an apostrophe, just as in #1 above. This is especially true if there would be confusion without the apostrophe. For example:

There are a lot of “I’s” in your story; it would read more smoothly if you took yourself out of it.

Without the apostrophe, “I” and “s” would spell “is.”

A Creature A Day

I had the worst day last Thursday. But thankfully I am visited by small bossy people that whisper words of wisdom to me at odd moments. I think they must be spirit guides from a past life. Like this guy…

I listened to him and drew for a while and it helped me.


This will be my new technique for coping. I may need to write a book about it and put the anti-depressant makers out of business.

I did a colour one too a little later.


Grammar Tip #5: Some Words That Are Not Really Words At All

Just a short tip (and a late one) for this week:

Here are two words that people use that are not actually words at all. Please do send along more. What a fun rainy day activity!

Preventative and exploitive are not words. The real words are preventive and exploitative. How do we know? Because we say, “prevention,” not “preventation.” Similarly, we say “exploitative” because the noun form is “exploitation.”

The Root of All My Issues

This is a comic that Eve Corbel and I did together for Word Under the Street 2006. It was created to demonstrate what people could win when they entered our One Panel Starring Me contest– they told us a story and we chose one to illustrate. Watch for the winner’s story… coming soon to and


Grammar Tip #4: Less or Fewer

A lot of cyclists have a sticker on their bikes that says “One Less Car.” I fully support the sentiment, but the grammar sucks. It should say “One Fewer Car” or “One Car Fewer.” Why?

You use “fewer” when talking about things you can count, like bicycles or people or cars or traffic accidents.

You use “less” when talking about a quantity of something that cannot be counted, like sugar or happiness or guilt or rain.

“Less” is more commonly misused than “fewer.” These are incorrect:
More bicycles means less cars.
There have been a lot less accidents since they put in speed bumps.
There’s been a lot less people coming by the store today.

You can sometimes use “less” with countable items if those items together form a unit, like “less than ten feet”– the ten feet are not ten separate countable items, but one unit. Similarly, you would say something cost “less than five dollars.”

If you see someone hovering around a bike rack with a Sharpie, that’s me.