English Language Usage: How to Teach and Learn Plurals and the Apostrophe

The Apostrophe

Many people, who would like to feel comfortable with their knowledge and use of English grammar and punctuation, seem to have a problem with apostrophe use.


In the UK, it is widely believed that greengrocers have a particular problem! :)
It seems that the problem occurs when the use of the apostrophe is confused with the construction of plural nouns.
I shall look at both matters in turn, starting with the apostrophe.


Apostrophe Usage:

Basically the apostrophe is used in 'omission' and 'possession', so let's look at the 'apostrophe rules'.

Remembering when and how to use the apostrophe does not have to be too difficult.


Omission

The apostrophe is used when letters are omitted from a word. This is called a contraction.
For example, the English cities Birmingham and Wolverhampton are quite long words.
People do not always want to write them in full.
Instead they may write: B'ham or W'hampton.

People often contract words when speaking and when writing, so we get:

I shall = I'll
I shall not = I sha'n't
He did not = He didn't
He cannot = He can't
She should not = She shouldn't
You are = You're
We are = We're
You had = You'd
We would = We'd
They will = They'll
It is = It's

Letters are missed out in other languages, too.
In French, for example, one can say Je déteste (I hate / detest), but one cannot say Je adore (I love / adore).
The two vowels, at the end of Je and the beginning of adore, do not sound right together, so the French omit the e from Je and say J'adore. This is called elision.

Possession

So far, so good, but the real problems arise when it comes to possessives ~ words indicating ownership and belonging.

The book that belongs to me is my book.
The house that belongs to you is your (old usage: 'thy') house.
The bicycle that belongs to him is his bike.
The attachment that belongs to it is its attachment.
The garden that belongs to her is her garden.
The photographs that belong to us are our photos.
The memories that belong to you (plural) are your memories.
The cakes that belong to them are their cakes.

Etc. Etc.

(Please note the difference between it's = it is and its = belonging to it.)

But what about the bike that belongs to John?
In this case, we need to start with a formation that sounds a bit odd.
We need to think ~ probably surprisingly:
John his bike.
But we don't say that, and we don't write that.
We say and write John's bike.
We omit the letters hi from his and replace them with an apostrophe.

Now, how about: the flowers that belong to Susan?
We need to think ~ perhaps even more surprisingly:
Susan his flowers ~ even though Susan is female.
But we don't say that, and we don't write that.
We say and write Susan's flowers.
We omit the letters hi from his and replace them with an apostrophe.

And what about the teddy bear that belongs to the baby, or the car that belongs to the lady, or the hat that belongs to Ruby?

The baby his teddy bear = the baby's teddy bear.
The lady his car = the lady's car.
Ruby his hat = Ruby's hat.

Some examples may, at first, seem more difficult:
What about the dog that belongs to Lewis, or the cat that belongs to James?
Lewis his dog = Lewis's dog
James his cat = James's cat

Note however:
There is a tendency, when speaking about Jesus, to write Jesus'
In the name of Jesus = In Jesus' name.

Plurals

Possessives with some unusual plurals ~ note that we continue to use his:

The truck that belongs to the men
The men his truck = the men's truck
The house that belongs to the women
The women his house = the women's house

We should now see a pattern and realise that, as long as we remember and follow the pattern, it is not really difficult to use the possessive apostrophe correctly.

There is a very slight difference with most other plurals.
What about the car belonging to the ladies?
We have to think:
The ladies his car
But, if we then tried to say the ladies's car, it simply would not sound right. We already have one letter s at the end of the word, another one wouldn't sit right, so we don't just miss out two of the letters from his, we miss them all out:
The car that belongs to the ladies = the ladies his car = the ladies' car.

What about the dresses that belong to the girls?
Perhaps it is no longer surprising that we need to think:
The girls his dresses.
But we don't say or write that.
As with the example above, we now need to omit the whole of the word his.
The dresses that belong to the girls = the girls his dresses = the girls' dresses

Similarly, we might have:
The shirts that belong to the boys = the boys his shirts = the boys' shirts.

Note the difference with:
The shirts that belong to the boy = the boy his shirts = the boy's shirts.

The first of these examples concerns a number of boys with a number of shirts.
The second example concerns one boy with a number of shirts.

What about the nest that belongs to the mouse ~ or to the mice?
The mouse his nest = the mouse's nest
The mice his nest = the mice's nest.

I hope that this makes sense and that it is helpful! :)

Edit: 27th March 2010:

There is another interesting hub about the 'possessive' apostrophe ~ and why you should not even care about it. And I think that it makes a lot of sense. Do read it ~ it's here: Possessive Apostrophe: Why You Shouldn't Care

However, some people wish to use it, but do not know how to do so, and other people ~ eg English teachers and office managers ~ insist on it being used, or conclude that the writer is ignorant and 'wrong', which does not go down well on references or in exams, etc.

The author of that hub is most probably correct, but, while the apostrophe is being used for possession, it's best if people can remember how to use it 'correctly'. :)

The Formation of Plurals

In order to use the apostrophe correctly, with plural nouns, we must first know how to construct the plural form of a noun.

A noun is a word that names something:
Eg. animal, sky, tree, book, car, misery, love, person, weather, happiness

A singular noun is one that names a single item.
Eg. animal, dog, sky, box, tree, house, book, car, person

A plural noun names more than one item:
Eg. animals, dogs, skies, boxes, trees, houses, books, cars, people

There are some rules, and there are some exceptions to those rules.

So there are regular plurals and there are irregular plurals.

The most common form of plural noun formation is to add a letter s to the end of the word.
Book > books
Wasp >wasps
Moth > moths
Cat > cats
Donkey > donkeys
Taxi > taxis
Joy > joys
Path > paths
Way > ways
Chief > chiefs
Roof > roofs
Etc. Etc.

For nouns ending in ss, x, z, ch, sh, we add es to the end of the word

Loss > losses
Fox > foxes
Church > churches
Wish > wishes
Fish > fishes (or fish)

Many words ending with o also add es:

Tomato > tomatoes
Potato > potatoes
Cameo > cameos
Echo > echoes
Hero > heroes

However, many ending in o simply add an s:
These tend to be words that are, or were originially, the short forms of longer nouns:
Piano (pianoforte) > pianos
Cello (violoncello) > cellos
Photo (photograph) > photos
Radio (radiotelephone) > radios


Another common form of plural noun formation concerns words that end in the letter y (but not ey):
In this case, we turn the y to i then add es:
Baby > babies
Lady > ladies
Ruby > rubies
City > cities
Hobby > hobbies
Country > countries
Sky > skies
Penny > pennies (or pence)

But remember, only if the noun ends in y not if it ends in ey:
Donkey > donkeys
Monkey > monkeys
Valley > valleys
Toy > toys

Words ending in f or fe.
Some simply add an s, others changes the f to v and add es.

Others again can have either one.

Roof > roofs
Chief > chiefs
Cliff > cliffs
Cuff > cuffs

Wife > wives
Knife > knives
Life > lives
calf > calves
elf > elves
thief > thieves

Hoof > hooves or hooves
Scarf > scarves or scarves
Handkerchief > handkerchiefs or handkerchieves

Some nouns don't change in the plural:
Deer > deer
Sheep > sheep
Note:
Fish > fish or fishes

Some nouns are always plural:
Spectacles; scissors; jeans; trousers, tights, etc.

There are some particularly unusual plural forms:
Person > people
Ox > oxen
Child > children
Man > men
Woman > women
Goose > geese
Tooth > teeth
Mouse > mice

And don't be caught out by mongoose:
Mongoose > mongooses

Nouns never require an apostrophe in order to become plural.
Nouns NEVER require an apostrophe in order to become plural.

If in doubt, do consult a dictionary.


In conclusion

I have found that incorrect use of the apostrophe seems to stem from two problems ~
~ Not knowing how to use the apostrophe
~ Getting confused when forming plurals

I hope that this item will help on both counts. :)

I also hope that I have made no errors.

Please let me know if you find any!

Thanks :)

PS. I am English, so my spelling is of the English variety.

Do you care about the apostrophe?

Is it important to use the apostrophe correctly?

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Comments 29 comments

Jane Grey profile image

Jane Grey 6 years ago from Oregon

What a lovely comprehensive guide to the apostrophe! Of all punctuation marks, this little fella gets abused the most. :)


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Definitely!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands Author

I have just edited this a little.


Tubbs Merouge profile image

Tubbs Merouge 6 years ago from Louisiana

Great hub and very informative!


maggs224 profile image

maggs224 6 years ago from Sunny Spain

A very enjoyable hub and packed full of useful and easy to follow information. I left school at 15 and I missed most of this somewhere along the line. I think a lot of grammar rules must have been taught when I had some time off school following a road traffic accident where I was knocked off my bike. I spent quite a while off school as a result of this and when I returned this was one area that I never quite got to grips with. I was an avid reader and over the years I learned to write fairly well simply by the fact I could tell when something didn’t look or sound right, but hubs like yours lay out wonderfully why they aren’t right. Thank you for explaining things so well and I am sure that this hub will help many people.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hello Maggs. Thank you for those kind words. :)

I also missed a whole chunk of school ~ when I was ill for several weeks ~ and I think that I must have missed out on some English grammar at the time, too. I know that I had trouble following it for quite some time. However, I loved languages, and, through learning French, German, etc, I managed to pick up some English grammar along the way.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 6 years ago from Northern California

Ah yes, the apostrophe and plurals! I teach my 5th-grade students about this, and yet I continue to see issues with this in menus and signs every day! :( Great overview of the topic... You hit all the points!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hello Glassvisage :)

Thank you for your comments.

What do you think about the suggestion that there should be no possessive apostrophe, as suggested in that other hub?


Yusuf 6 years ago

Can you tell me the difference between belong and belongs?


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi Yusuf :)

'Belong' and 'belongs' ~ usage depends on who or what is being referred to.

The verb 'to belong' is declined like this:

I belong

You belong (singular)

He belongs

She belongs

It belongs

We belong

You belong (plural)

They belong

*

So we might say:

I belong to my locality.

You belong to a photography club

He belongs with her.

Sarah (she) belongs with John (him).

The ball (it) belongs to the boy.

We belong to this family.

You (people) belong together

The cars (they) belong to the men.

*

I hope that this helps :)


William Baker 6 years ago

The best explanation of the apostrophe I've seen so far, however, I think the eighth word in your first sentence should be 'coMfortable' and not 'coNfortable'and the commas after 'people' and 'punctuation' make it sound almost like a question.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Thank you William. :)

Glad you enjoyed it.

I have read and re-read that piece and I hadn't noticed the incorrect spelling. Amazing!

Thank you for pointing it out to me. I have now corrected it.

I am still 'comfortable' with the punctuation, though. :)


William Baker 6 years ago

Just kidding you Tricia_2, I spotted you on Rootschat.

Billkent.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Wow!

You can't hide anywhere these days :)


Lita C. Malicdem profile image

Lita C. Malicdem 6 years ago from Philippines

I just had a good read here on grammar rules on apostrophe and plurals. A little leafing of our grammar books is highly necessary because as writers we leave our footprints around and we don't want our readers find in our hubs many errors, most espcially in spelling of plural nouns. Good work, Trish!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Thank you Lita :)

Yes, I agree!


Adela Rasta profile image

Adela Rasta 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

A very clear and effective explanation on the use of the apostrophe! Excellent hub.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hello Adela :)

Thank you ~ glad you enjoyed it!


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

You've done the apostrophe justice! Nice article with good information. Everyone needs a little refresher now and then. Voted up.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Thanks Tillsontitan ~ much appreciated!! :)


J.S.Matthew profile image

J.S.Matthew 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

This is great! I have a daughter who struggles with tenses, plurals and apostrophes. I am going to bookmark this in hopes that I can take it slow and help her a little at a time. Nice Hub! Thanks for Sharing! Voted up and shared.

JSMatthew~


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi :)

Thanks, J.S.Matthew. I do hope that it helps :)

(By the way, I understand that the bookmarking system seems to be on its way out.)


J.S.Matthew profile image

J.S.Matthew 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

Hi Trish_M! Yes, I know that thank you. I bookmarked on my browser(Google Chrome). I wish they were keeping the Bookmarks on HP but I guess not many used the feature. Oh well! Thanks again!

JSMatthew~


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Thank you :)


J.S.Matthew profile image

J.S.Matthew 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

No, thank you! =)

JSMatthew~


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

Thanks for clarifying the uses of the venerable apostrophe. "It's" vs "its" is one of my common mistakes. Voting this Up and Useful.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Thank, Alocsin ~ glad you found it useful :)


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

No one who reads this hub all the way to the end AND pays attention to the examples will ever misplace an apostrophe again! Thanks! Well done! ;D


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi JamaGenee :)

Well, that was the plan :) :)

Thank you!

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