How to use plural possessives properly
Do you struggle with plural possessives? If so, don't feel bad, as you're not alone! A recent poll showed that nearly half of the 2,000 Britons surveyed did not know how to use an apostrophe properly, and punctuating plural possessives was the most common apostrophe error.
Knowing when and where to add the apostrophe to plural possessives can be tricky. Further complicating matters is that the correct usage sometimes looks and sounds wrong. We hope that by the end of this article, you'll have a better grasp of plural possessives and how and when to use them.
Let's get started with plural possessives
Perhaps you are simply wondering what a plural possessive is; let's start there. When there is more than one of a noun, it is plural. The majority of nouns are made plural by adding an "s" to the end, though as with so many things in the English language, there are exceptions (e.g., tooth and teeth). A noun is possessive when it shows ownership or possession of something. Most singular nouns are made possessive by adding an apostrophe and an "s" at the end of them:
Alice had one kitten. When it was playing in the kitchen, the kitten's toy went under the refrigerator.
Plural possessives indicate when there is more than one of a noun and show ownership of something. The possessive of most plural nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe only:
Alice had two kittens. When they were playing in the kitchen, the kittens' toy went under the refrigerator.
An exception to this rule is the possessive of plural nouns that do not end in "s." These are formed by adding an apostrophe and an "s" to the noun:
The women's dressing room was very small.
When the singular and plural of a noun both end in an "s," the possessive for both is formed by adding an apostrophe only:
The species' status was changed to endangered.
In the case of a noun where both forms end in an "s," it may be necessary to reword the sentence to avoid ambiguity and to clarify whether you are referring to a singular or plural noun:
The status of the two species was changed to endangered.
The status of the species was changed to endangered.
Know when to avoid using plural possessives
It is also sometimes advisable to reword a sentence in order to avoid using awkward sounding plural possessives. There is no hard or fast rule to this, and both phrasings will be correct, so go ahead and use whatever you think sounds best.
To determine this, try reading your sentence aloud to see if the plural possessive sounds particularly awkward. For example, "The Rodgerses' house is big" is a bit of a mouthful, so you may consider changing the phrase to "The Rodgers family has a big house."
Still unsure if you are using plural possessives correctly? Order an English grammar check to make sure your apostrophe is being used in the right place at the right time.
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You are a professional and are very proficient at academic writing in your first language, but when it comes to translating your work into written English, suddenly you don't know your "ifs" from your "ofs." This is natural in professional ESL writing, because writing in another language is a lot more complicated than speaking it. However, here are some helpful tips to improve your ESL writing.
Let's examine some of the rules that dictate when apostrophes are used and where they should be placed in a word.
Scribendi.com's editors outline the ten most common mistakes made by ESL students.
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Singular and Plural Forms in Scientific Writing
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Although plurals can sometimes be relatively simple, there are situations that cause confusion, including mass nouns. Learn more about how to avoid mistakes in scientific writing.
In most cases, forming the plural in English is relatively simple (just add an ‘s’). However, authors frequently make a few mistakes when forming plurals, especially with mass nouns.
Count nouns are discrete, individual entities – items that you can count. Mass nouns, sometimes called uncountable or non-count nouns, refer to an undifferentiated mass or collection of material. For example, you would not say, “I’m all out of a water.” It is correct to say “I need a little water” or “I need a few bottles of water.” In this example, water is a mass noun, and bottle is a count noun. Likewise, when describing an experiment, you would quantify a mass noun by adding a specific measurement (e.g., “2 ml of water”); in fact, whether you choose bottles or milliliters, the mass noun requires some unit of measurement to be quantified. Note that the unit is plural and the mass noun (‘water’) remains unchanged.
Data and research are two nouns that are frequently used in the sciences and are much more tricky than they appear.
It is often taught that data (like media or spectra) is a plural word (the singular is ‘datum’). In most contexts, the word data refers to specific numerical results and should therefore be treated as a plural count noun, with a corresponding plural verb form.
- The patient data are sorted in Table 1.
- Data were collected retrospectively from patient medical records.
However, this rule is not strict; it depends on the scientific context. Data can sometimes be used in the singular as a mass noun. For example, in Ars Technica, Chris Foresman examines how securely “user data is stored” by Apple’s iCloud service. Likewise, the following PLOS ONE article uses the singular form of data in its title: “Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science.” In computer science, data is often used in the singular form as an mass noun; that is, computer scientists use the word data to describe a mass of information to be accessed, stored, or processed (information is another great example of a mass noun).
Unlike data, research should always be used as a mass noun. Some writers attempt to force research to take a plural form (researches); however, this usage is incredibly rare, and it will almost certainly trouble a reviewer. Because research is a mass noun, it can refer to a wide body of literature (e.g., “current research in the field”) or the work involved in a specific project (e.g., “our research focused on the following objectives”). If you need to quantify the research in question, try using study/studies (e.g., “In total, 28 studies were included in this review”). Consider the following examples, also from PLOS ONE:
We hope these tips and examples help avoid the grammatical confusion that often surrounds data and research. Are there other singular or plural forms that cause you trouble in your scientific writing? Write to [email protected], and we will work with you to find the answer. Best of luck!
TagsWriting a manuscriptEditing tipsWord choiceGrammarPlurals