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Be Careful with the -a Team

The first letter of the alphabet is also a common English word that is virtually synonymous with one. As a word, a is the very antithesis of plurality.

This might help explain why there’s so much confusion about a group of words that I call “the -a team.” Here they are: bacteria, criteria, data, media, phenomena, Sierra. As you can see, all end in the letter a, which just sounds so darned singular that these words continue to confound even careful writers and speakers. Because the fact is, they’re all plural.

Bacteria Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there, but Staphylococcus is a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. The singular is bacterium. So a sentence like The bacteria in the cut was infecting it is flawed—the bacteria were infecting it.

Criteria It’s the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. The sentence Honesty is our chief criteria is ungrammatical; there can’t be only one criteria. Make it Honesty is our chief criterion or Honesty is one of our chief criteria. Your criteria are your standards, plural.

Those who know that criteria is plural aren’t out of the woods yet either: many believe the singular is “criterium.” And there are some who will reveal to you their “criterias.”

Data John B. Bremner, in Words on Words, states unequivocally, “The word is plural.” This one is thorny, because the singular, datum, is virtually nonexistent in English. Many people see data as a synonym for information, and to them, These data are very interesting sounds downright bizarre. Maybe, but it’s also correct. English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein says, “Some respected and learned writers have used data as a singular. But a great many more have not.”

Media Among the language’s most abused words is media, a plural noun; medium is the singular. A medium is a system of mass communication: The medium of television is a prominent component of the mass media.

Every day we hear and read statements like The media is irresponsible or The media has a hidden agenda. In those sentences, media should be followed by are and have.

There are some who prefer and defend the media is and the media has. To them, the various means of mass communication—newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, blogs, etc.—make up one “media.”

But writers should insist on the media are. It’s important that people think of the media as many voices, opinions, and perspectives rather than one monolithic entity.

Phenomena This troublemaker baffles even articulate speakers. Phenomena is plural; phenomenon is singular.

“Management is a universal phenomenon,” declares a business website. But a commentator on national television had it exactly backward. He spoke of “the phenomena of climate change” and later used phenomenon as a plural. Others say “phenomenas” when they mean phenomena.

Sierra Avoid “Sierras” when the topic is the vast California mountain range. An online camping guide says, “Translating from Spanish, sierra is plural in itself.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, a conservation organization, elaborates: “The Sierra Nevada is a single, distinct unit, both geographically and topographically, and is well described by una sierra nevada. Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never pluralize the name—such as Sierras, or Sierra Nevadas, or even High Sierras …”

“Strictly speaking,” you say? What a concept!

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5:05 pm


Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive

Apostrophes’ chief purpose is to show possession, but these marks have other functions, too. They alert readers when, and where, one or more letters are missing from a word, such as the no that is dropped when cannot becomes can’t. Or they create separation to avoid confusion when two elements are combined for special reasons. For example, in When Colin writes a’s, they look like u’s, the apostrophes prevent us from thinking that the writer meant as and us. It’s hard to imagine any credible writer not using apostrophes for a’s and u’s, but beyond that, apostrophe unanimity is hard to find.

Apostrophes have a complicated relationship with plurals. Different writers have different approaches when writing the plural forms of abbreviations, some letters and numbers, and words that do not normally take plurals.

• What’s the plural of an abbreviation with periods, like Ph.D.? There’s no right answer. Some write Ph.D.s, some write Ph.D.’s.

• Most writers use apostrophes when pluralizing single capital letters (I earned three A’s), but there are some who would write three As. With groups of two or more capital letters, apostrophes seem less necessary (two new MPs, learn your ABCs), but some writers insist on them.

• Single-digit numbers are usually spelled out, but when they aren’t, you are just as likely to see 2s and 3s as 2’s and 3’s. With double digits and above, many (but not everyone) regard the apostrophe as superfluous. Most writers nowadays favor the 1900s, but some go with the 1900’s. If numerals are used to identify decades, the ’30s is widely used, but you will also see the 30’s, and occasionally even the ’30’s.

• A keyboard caveat: it takes extra effort to generate an apostrophe when it is the first character in numbers or words like the ’30s or ’tis (for “it is”). If you’re not careful, you’ll instead type an opening single quotation mark (), which is a backward and upside-down apostrophe. The result will be the30s and ‘tis, which finicky readers consider an indefensible lapse.

• Making words plural with ’s is usually a big mistake, but some writers, as a courtesy to readers, will add ’s to words that don’t ordinarily become plural, as in no if’s, and’s, or but’s, or here are some do’s and don’t’s. Since two apostrophes in one word look clunky, you are more likely to see do’s and don’ts, which looks better, although don’ts is inconsistent with do’s. A better option might be to use italics to establish differentiation: no ifs, ands, or buts; some dos and don’ts.

• Let’s close with a possessive-apostrophe principle that confuses a lot of people. For the plurals of familiar compound nouns like driver’s license and master’s degree, the apostrophe stays the same; the plurals are driver’s licenses and master’s degrees. You may ask why not drivers’ licenses—after all, we’re talking about more than one driver, aren’t we? Well, yes and no. The driver’s in two driver’s licenses denotes that each license was issued to one driver only. The same reasoning applies to master’s degrees.

No punctuation mark causes more confusion and dissent than apostrophes. If we could get together on the rules, maybe people would use them more.

 

Pop Quiz

Find the incorrect sentence(s).

1. You used too many ands in that paragraph.
2. Today’s multiplication exercise will focus on 6’s and 7’s.
3. The decade of the ‘80s was marked by scandals.
4. In her note, the Ls all looked like Es.

 

Pop Quiz Answer

Three of the sentences would be acceptable to at least some editors and publishers. The one incorrect sentence is No. 3: The decade of the ‘80s was marked by scandals. Make it ’80s, with an apostrophe.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at 3:29 pm


Apostrophes: Dueling Rules

There are various guidelines for apostrophes, but only three rules that everyone agrees on: To show possession for a noun that is singular and does not end in s, add ’s (Joe’s lunch). If the noun is plural but does not end in s, add ’s (the people’s choice). If the noun is plural and ends in s, add just an apostrophe (the leaves’ bright colors).

Beyond these, the experts are at odds. For instance, how should we write the possessive of singular proper nouns ending in s? The two foremost American authorities on written English, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and The Associated Press Stylebook (AP), have irreconcilable policies. AP prefers adding only an apostrophe (Charles’ book), whereas CMOS recommends adding ’s (Charles’s book). Take your pick.

Here are some other apostrophe debates …

CMOS adds just an apostrophe when a noun ending in s is the same whether singular or plural. The guidebook offers three examples: politics’ true meaning, economics’ forerunners, and this species’ first record. The GrammarBook.com staff agrees with politics’ and economics’, but prefers this species’s, because in normal English usage, species is just as likely to be singular as it is to be plural—one often hears “a species,” but who says “a politics” or “an economics”?

• With nouns ending in s, writes English scholar Roy H. Copperud, there are editors whose choice of either ’s or a lone apostrophe is based on such esoteric criteria as how many syllables are in the word; whether the accent falls on the last syllable; and whether the last syllable begins, ends, or both begins and ends with an s sound. If you’re shaking your head, you’re not alone.

• Many who generally add ’s to common and proper nouns ending in s make one huge exception: they drop the added s if pronouncing it would be awkward or uncomfortable. For example, since most people would not pronounce an s added to the possessive form of Mr. Hastings, these writers and editors prefer Mr. Hastings’ pen, not Hastings’s. And since most people would likely pronounce an added s if the pen belonged to Mrs. Jones, it should be Mrs. Jones’s pen, rather than Jones’.

It should be noted that CMOS does not concur, and prescribes ’s with no exceptions (other than the aforementioned politics, economics, etc.). We agree, because we do not assume that all careful speakers pronounce words the same. To what extent should the editing of written English be based on ease of pronunciation? That is a discussion worth having. But such a method does not account for vast differences in articulation within the diverse company of literate speakers of English worldwide.

Besides, anytime you don’t like the look or sound of a sentence, the easy way out is a rewrite. As CMOS points out, writing the first record of this species sidesteps the whole species’ vs. species’s predicament.

And when it comes to apostrophe rules, we see little to be gained from so many exotic exceptions and qualifications.

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Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2014, at 5:43 pm


Apostrophes and False Possessives

In English, nouns become adjectives all the time: a computer’s malfunction is also called a computer malfunction. One of Shakespeare’s plays is a Shakespeare play.

Consider the sentence Beverly Hills’ weather is mild. Like computer’s and Shakespeare’s in the previous paragraph, Beverly Hills’ is a possessive noun. But we could turn it into an adjective by removing the apostrophe: Beverly Hills weather is mild. Same with Abe Jones’s campaign is picking up steam—we could also say The Abe Jones campaign is picking up steam.

Few would argue with the apostrophe in The Beatles’ place in pop music history is assured. But how would you write this sentence: There are still countless Beatles/Beatles’ fans out there. Although many would choose Beatles’ fans, it should be Beatles fans—no apostrophe—because the sentence has turned Beatles into an adjective modifying fans rather than a possessive noun.

There are times when the distinction is trivial. There is no significant difference between General Motors cars are selling and General Motors’ cars are selling. But if you were to write We visited the General Motors’ plant in Wentzville, you’d be using a possessive noun where only an adjective should go.

Notice that the four examples above involve the nouns Hills, Jones, Beatles, and Motors. Nouns ending in s can tempt rushed or distracted writers to add a possessive apostrophe for no good reason. Many writers, including most journalists, add only an apostrophe to show possession when a proper noun ends in s. On a bad day, this can result in silly phrases like a Texas’ barbecue joint, a Sally Hawkins’ movie, or even the St. Regis’ Hotel, in which the apostrophes are indefensible.

Those who write such things would never dream of writing a Chicago’s barbecue joint, a George Clooney’s movie, or the Fairmont’s Hotel.

So whenever writers are of a mind to add a possessive apostrophe to a noun ending in s, they might first try swapping that word with one that ends in a different letter. If the result is nonsense, they’ll have ample time to revise the sentence and save themselves some embarrassment.

 

Pop Quiz
Mend any sentences that need fixing.

1. Julie Andrews singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work.
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones’ fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes’ approach to life.
4. Yolanda Adams music is infectious.
5. It was a Black Keys’ performance for the ages.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Julie Andrews’s singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work. (some would write Andrews’)
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes approach to life.
4. “Yolanda Adams music,” “Yolanda Adams’s music,” and “Yolanda Adams’ music” would all be acceptable.
5. It was a Black Keys performance for the ages.

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Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014, at 6:36 pm


Apostrophes and Proper Nouns

Take a close look at this sentence about the great playwright Tennessee Williams: It’s Tennessee William’s best play. Note the placement of the apostrophe. It disfigures the name Williams—how could that be right? Here’s a rule to live by: Forget the apostrophe until you write out the entire word. A correct possessive apostrophe can never entangle itself within any word. So by writing Williams out first, you can avoid a lot of trouble.

The trouble that can’t be avoided comes next, because there are conflicting policies for writing possessive proper nouns that end in s. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends just an apostrophe: It’s Tennessee Williams’ best play. But most other authorities endorse ’s: Williams’s.

Williams’s means “belonging to Williams.” It is not the plural form of Williams. People’s names become plural the way most other words do. Only rank amateurs think the plural of cat is cat’s. Names are no different. They seem different because of human vanity: we’re somehow reluctant to compromise the “purity” of Smith so we mistakenly write the Smith’s, adding the apostrophe to establish a respectful distance between the name and the s rather than simply writing the Smiths, the Fongs, the Calderóns.

Now, what if the name ends in s? Figuring out the plural of a name like Williams drives people crazy. Some would write the Williams, but that means the family’s name is William. Others employ that misguided apostrophe: the Williams’ or the Williams’s or even the William’s. That last one is particularly ghastly. Taken literally, the William’s means something ridiculous: “belonging to the William.” Forcing an apostrophe between the m and s mangles and mocks the name.

All names ending in s become plural by adding es. Make it the Williamses. To show possession, add just an apostrophe: Williamses’. The house belonging to the Williams family is the Williamses’ house. Maybe you’re thinking it sounds ridiculous and looks bizarre. But it’s also correct.

Let’s look at some other types of proper nouns …

• Many organizations, companies, and government agencies are known by two or more capital letters (AP, MGM, EEOC). Initialisms ending in S show possession by adding ’s: CBS’s ratings, DHHS’s policies.

• Add only an apostrophe to show possession for a place, business, or organization whose name is a plural noun or ends with a plural noun: the Everglades’ scenery, Beverly Hills’ weather; the Cellars’ wine list, General Mills’ cereals.

• Most writers and editors make an exception for biblical and classical proper names ending in s. Traditionally, only an apostrophe is added to such names: Moses’ law, Xerxes’ army. However, the influential Chicago Manual of Style recently ruled against this odd policy and started recommending Moses’s, Xerxes’s, etc.

For apostrophes with possessive proper nouns, remember these three guidelines: If the noun is singular, add ’s (Kansas’s). If the noun is plural but does not end in s, add ’s (the Magi’s gifts). If the noun is plural and ends in s, add just an apostrophe (the Beatles’ greatest hits).

Except for writers who abide by Associated Press guidelines, apostrophe rules for possessive proper nouns are virtually identical to those for possessive common nouns.

 

Pop Quiz
Correct any wayward sentences.

1. John Quincy Adams was John Adam’s son.
2. Both Adams’ achievements were notable.
3. When in New York, she always enjoyed the Four Season’s food.
4. Al Johnson brought the Johnson’s favorite dessert.
5. Carlos Valdez says the Valdez’s car is in the shop.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. John Quincy Adams was John Adams’s son. (some would write Adams’)
2. Both Adamses’ achievements were notable.
3. When in New York, she always enjoyed the Four Seasons’ food.
4. Al Johnson brought the Johnsons’ favorite dessert.
5. Carlos Valdez says the Valdezes’ car is in the shop.

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Posted on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, at 4:56 pm