The plural apostrophe plague

For reasons I do not understand, a large proportion of the under-30 population believes that plurals are created by adding ‘s. An error that was once restricted to Italian and Greek greengrocers (banana’s $1 a kilo etc) is now common. It is still relatively rare in professionally produced publications, but appears in an ABS release today.

CONTENTS
National Accounts & International Comparisons

Graph’s
Link’s

International Accounts & Overseas Comparisons

Graph’s
Link’s

Consumption & Investment

Graph’s
Link’s

Production & Overseas Comparisons

Graph’s
Link’s

Price Indexes

Graph’s
Link’s

Labour Force & Demography

Graph’s
Link’s

Incomes & Labour Costs

Graph’s
Link’s

Finance Markets

Graph’s
Link’s

State Comparison

Link’s

International Comparison

Graph’s
Link’s

It’s not a complex rule: just don’t use ‘s when creating a plural.

33 Responses to “The plural apostrophe plague

  • 1
    Dave Bath
    June 30th, 2009 18:45

    Perhap’s the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s should publish regular study’s of plural apostrophe’s… but let’s hope they understand the difference between genitive case and a case of genitals.

  • 2
    Alexander
    June 30th, 2009 21:01

    Dave, English doesn’t have a genitive case.

    Everyone, The real question is, why does it matter? English spelling/punctuation has been no more static than the spoken language.

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    June 30th, 2009 21:39

    I know a lot of linguists are against ‘prescriptivism’, and obviously language changes. But not all changes are for the better, and this is a case in which ambiguity can be removed with one keystroke. It’s worth doing.

  • 4
    Alexander
    July 1st, 2009 01:37

    When’s it ever ambiguous if you fail to make a distinction between with/without an apostrophe? In the one or two cases out of billions where it does make a difference, people will be confused and fail to fully appreciate the distinction, because it’s evidently hard. Thus, those one or two cases need to be recast anyway so that context makes it clear what you’re trying to say, which makes the difference as useful as peacock feathers.

    Also, I think the reason failure to distinguish -‘s from -s looks more common today is that a greater range of people are publishing. Even just twenty or thirty years ago, the ABS error wouldn’t’ve happened because when the ABS employee sent the hand/typewritten document off to the printers, they would’ve changed “Graph’s” into “Graphs”. I doubt it represents a failure in education or the stupidity of young people or whatever you were trying to imply with your “under-30” comment.

  • 5
    James Simpson
    July 1st, 2009 02:03

    Isn’t Andrew’s position roughly the grammatical equivalent of the broken windows policy: its best to be strict, even on rules that don’t appear to matter, because it leads to the maintenance of standards where it does matter?

  • 6
    Patrick
    July 1st, 2009 07:07

    What depressing comments, Andrew’s aside. I hadn’t previously heard the argument that ‘we should just tolerate any old errors, since English is evolving anyway’, and I hope never to hear it again.

  • 7
    Rajat Sood
    July 1st, 2009 07:26

    Much of the evolution in English is the removal of punctuation (eg commas in sentences and semicolons at the end of items on a list) rather than the addition of punctuation where it is not required. Maybe the economic downturn will give job-seekers a renewed appreciation of proper spelling and punctuation.

  • 8
    Andrew Norton
    July 1st, 2009 08:33

    Alexander – There is a big difference between being comprehensible – we can all reconstruct meaning from even very poor English – and being readable. That depends on following a range of conventions, some of which like apostrophe use are regarded as ‘correct’, others as matters of style. Both semi-literate and academic writing, for example, is hard to read because our brains have to work hard to reconstruct what they are trying to say from the clues in the text. Incorrect apostrophes (and I notice that despite your argument, you include correct apostrophes in your comments) are just another trip point. I think the broken windows analogy is a good one.

    I am convinced this is a new problem, for two reasons. One is that I rarely see it in older people, even those who are confused by the its/it’s distinction – an understandable mistake given the normal use of the possessive apostrophe. The second is that I use to tutor at ADFA in the early 1990s, a non-selective (on academic grounds) institution. Many cadets needed its/it’s explained, but I don’t recall any being confused by plurals. Now I get emails from students at Group of Eight universities with this mistake.

  • 9
    Son of the Ratpack
    July 1st, 2009 09:49

    I recently had the pleasure of reading my niece’s school report. There was a section written by each teacher. The first sentence written by her VCE English teacher ended in a preposition, and it went downhill from there. My niece attends an elite private school where the fees are north of $20,000 per year. Draw your own conclusions.

  • 10
    conrad
    July 1st, 2009 09:56

    “I hadn’t previously heard the argument that ‘we should just tolerate any old errors, since English is evolving anyway’”
    .
    Do you mean that we shouldn’t tolerate situations where a noun phrase that is the antecedent of a pronoun is the genetive determiner of another noun phrase? (Conrad’s crappy writing scared him a lot). You’ll find that rule in many style manuals. (Or perhaps I’ve remember it incorrectly — I only remember because there was an argument over the correct answer in a SAT question some years ago)
    .
    More seriously, I agree — I think there’s a difference between being pedantic and having a reasonable level of formal writing skills.

  • 11
    Andrew Norton
    July 1st, 2009 10:27

    The style guides are very rarely pedantic. My favourite – The Cambridge Guide to English Usage by Pam Peters – is a model of good sense, supporting rules where they aid meaning or style, rejecting them where they do not.

    For example, she says that there are cases when ending a sentence with a preposition is fine. For example in between these two examples Pam prefers the first:
    ‘I wonder which train he was waiting for.’
    ‘I wonder for which train he was waiting.’

    Of course there will be many cases where for reasons of grammar or style prepositions should not be used at the end of a sentence, and not doing so is probably a good rule of thumb. But it is not a rule.

  • 12
    Son of the Ratpack
    July 1st, 2009 10:43

    Andrew, I am an avid user of the Cambridge Guide, and by no means a grammar fanatic, but this is never acceptable: “Andrew has a blog he can be proud of”. That does not mean that one should write “Andrew has a blog of which he can be proud”, because that is a pompous way to write. The correct form is: “Andrew can be proud of his blog”.

  • 13
    Tom N.
    July 1st, 2009 11:38

    SOTR said: “I recently had the pleasure of reading my niece’s school report. The first sentence written by her VCE English teacher ended in a preposition, and it went downhill from there. … Draw your own conclusions.”

    My conclusion is that you need to get a life.

  • 14
    Son of the Ratpack
    July 1st, 2009 11:45

    If I had a life, I wouldn’t post comments on this blog. Draw your own conclusions about that.

  • 15
    melaleuca
    July 1st, 2009 12:41

    “Andrew has a blog he can be proud of”

    That is a perfectly readable and unambiguous sentence. I think only a neurotic anal retentive would be bothered by it.

  • 16
    Son of the Ratpack
    July 1st, 2009 12:57

    Anal retentive or expressive, if I saw a job application that contained a sentence ending in of, and I see a lot of them, I would reject it immediately.
    Careless writing is a sure indicator of careless thinking.

  • 17
    melaleuca
    July 1st, 2009 13:02

    “Careless writing is a sure indicator of careless thinking.”

    You wouldn’t think that if you’d read as many medico-legal as I have, else if you did you’d never trust a surgeon 🙂

    As to job interviews, some research suggests interviewers are inclined to pick applicants that remind them most of themselves.

  • 18
    caf
    July 1st, 2009 13:59

    I’m under 30, and that ABS release caused me to physically wince.

  • 19
    conrad
    July 1st, 2009 14:49

    “if I saw a job application that contained a sentence ending in of, and I see a lot of them, I would reject it immediately.
    Careless writing is a sure indicator of careless thinking.”

    What about if you were reading a famous author (common), or even the Chicago Manual of [pedantic] style said it was ok?

    Try looking here:

    http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/Prepositions/Prepositions04.html

  • 20
    conrad
    July 1st, 2009 14:52

    p.s., the link’s a joke before you worry.

  • 21
    Andrew Norton
    July 1st, 2009 15:08

    I don’t know whether the link is real, but the Chicago Manual agrees with Pam, calling the ‘rule’ on ending sentences with prepositions an ‘ill-founded superstition’. (p.189). This is going too far I think – it is not a grammatical rule, but as stylistic advice it is as I suggested a reasonable rule of thumb.

  • 22
    Alexander
    July 1st, 2009 15:47

    Andrew, it’s gone from being a matter of ambiguity to a matter of maintaining broken windows. I personally think it’s like putting stickytape over cracks in a window. There’s an underlying problem (English orthography and stylistic guidelines was designed to be used by experts a hundred and more years ago, but today we expect anyone who’s had a couple of years training at primary school to be able to master it). You ignore broken windows if half the building’s sinking.

    This isn’t a matter of descriptive vs prescriptive linguistics. I accept that there needs to be some rules and guidelines about how people should write. I don’t agree that they should be today’s rules and guidelines; in fact, I think many of today’s make writing harder to produce and harder to understand than it needs to be. This doesn’t increase the quality, it decreases the quality and it decreases literacy.

    Andrew, if you do think it’s a problem faced only by under-30s, how do you explain it? Are our brains increasingly mushy? Has the education system failed us?

    Patrick, that’s not nearly what I said, so it’s quite possible you’ve still never heard it.

  • 23
    Andrew Norton
    July 1st, 2009 16:17

    I don’t have a good theory as to how this started. Most mistakes are caused by complex rules that are hard to remember or incorrect applications of known rules (its/it’s is an example – people recognise that its is performing a possessive function and add an apostrophe, a correct decision for nouns, but forget the exception for pronouns because there is a confusing ‘it’s’ which is correct in other contexts).

    Neither theory can explain this mistake. Creating a plural requires knowing a very simple rule – add ‘s’ (with some exceptions, none of which involve apostrophes). It’s surely counter-intuitive to add punctuation where there is no natural pause in spoken English? Plurals are very common – they will be used many thousands of times during the school years. As in the ABS example, correct and incorrect usage often coexists in the same text. As incorrect usage is still rare in published work, I doubt imitation from public sources is the cause.

    The only idea I have is that grammar teaching has so collapsed that many young people no longer know what ‘plural’ means. They are not stupid, but they have been poorly taught.

  • 24
    conrad
    July 1st, 2009 16:45

    “I don’t have a good theory as to how this started.”
    .
    I do, it’s called the whole-language approach to literacy. This is also the reason that people make more errors in other domains, such as homophone confusions (their, there, they’re), have poorer spelling in general (their, thier) and, for perhaps 30% of the population, more reading problems.
    .
    The problem now is that it’s hard to reverse, since a good chunk of English teachers simply don’t know about the structure of language. It also doesn’t fit post-modern theories of education, where every second of learning has to be fun and help a child develop an interest in the subject area.

  • 25
    melaleuca
    July 1st, 2009 23:48

    I think there would have to be a significant efficiency dividend if English grammar and spelling could be simplified. I’d like to see the language go entirely phonetic.

  • 26
    Alexander
    July 2nd, 2009 00:08

    Andrew, I think they’re recognising the word and the extra bit, and separating them. An apostrophe’s never meant “pause”, but it does exist in a number of cases when you’re combining two morphemes together. Except for -n’t, apostrophes always separate one syntactic word from another (-n’t is different by being in the middle of a morpheme, and being an inflexion, not a separate word).

    Conrad, I know nothing about teaching reading/writing, but I thought the “whole language” approach was meant to take sounds out of the picture. How could that increase homophone errors, if sounds are meant to be ignored? Have I misunderstood the distinction?

    For whatever it’s worth, I was definitely taught about the sound-spelling relationship in school, and I have a great deal of difficulty picking the right homophone. I (mostly) manage mainly because I care and read over what I’ve written.

    I doubt most teachers ever had any idea about the structure of language. They probably had a good grasp on the rules of English orthography, but to suggest that one is remotely like the other is to say someone’s a great physicist because they can play football really well, and must have a good understanding of gravity, wind resistance, etc. The structure of language is a matter of science, studied by linguists and psychologists. (Being able to identify a noun to the level you would’ve been taught in school is like knowing “what comes up, must come down”.)

  • 27
    Shem Bennett
    July 2nd, 2009 01:51

    I have no idea why there’s a problem with plurals. I think it’s a matter of “trying too hard”. People accept that in their casual text/ type plurals don’t have an apostrophe, but when it comes to trying to write formally they need to do something special and add punctuation.

    To be honest I’m not too phased. Orthographic systems are treated with a lot of disdain by most linguistics anyway. I don’t think it is a change that makes sense, so on that basis it should be resisted. But I’m not against orthographic change where it results in greater simplification. Nor am I against grammar shifts. Prepositions at the end of a sentence are something I’m quite in favour of. Stylistically it is really the only (non-pompous) way to topicalise a prepositional adjunct.

    Bring on education reform is all I can say, though. It’s just disappointing that teacher salaries are still comparatively so low. The jobs just don’t attract the talent required. From memory a Bachelor of Education was easier to get into in Tassie than a Bachelor of Arts…

  • 28
    Alexander
    July 2nd, 2009 04:12

    Melaleuca, Zuzana Kotercová at the University of Coventry calculated the cost of current English spelling to be, at least, hundreds of millions of pounds per year by comparing the time to literacy of Finnish versus English schoolchildren. In this, she ignored the additional costs to society caused by the limited job prospects available to people who don’t master spelling effectively. I can’t evaluate the research because I know nothing about economics or reading/writing teaching.

    But, if each English speaking country/region went for an orthography that was as phonetic as Finnish, we would need to add translation costs plus scientists (etc.) would need education in American or Classical English or whatever. These aren’t as big as they’d seem at blush, because a lot of stuff that’s written down is either local or adapted for each market anyway, and a lot of it could be automated (more than between English and say German, unless there’s significant and not-parallel changes in styles—which there would be eventually). I think Australia would also get a lot more self-confidence at independence if we had our own literary tradition.

    And please, don’t get the idea that spoken English has a simpler grammar than written English. In fact, trying to deal with sentence-final prepositions have increased the complexity of a lot of theories of grammar. (Which I think just shows that that type of theory is irredeemably wrong, but here’s neither the time nor the place.)

    Shem Bennett, the most misled I’ve seen in this thread to date is your “Orthographic systems are treated with a lot of disdain by most linguistics anyway”. At worst, most linguistics/most linguists ignore(s) orthographic systems as something outside of its scope (in the same way it ignores movie criticism and the force of gravity). Many linguists are happy to describe singular “they”, preposition-final sentences and double negatives as normal parts of English and then reduce a student’s mark for using them in an essay. There is absolutely no hypocracy in this.

  • 29
    Andrew Norton
    July 2nd, 2009 07:31

    Gosh, we’ve gone from let people write however they want to a top-down total revision of English in fewer than 30 comments. Prescripitivism wins:) (It will never happen of course, given the need to coordinate many hundreds of millions of current English speakers and numerous education systems.)

    At least these comments about Finnish explain how they do so well in the OECD literacy tests. Naive education researchers have been wasting their time looking at their education system, instead of realising that the tests were just easy.

  • 30
    conrad
    July 2nd, 2009 08:10

    “Conrad, I know nothing about teaching reading/writing, but I thought the “whole language” approach was meant to take sounds out of the picture. How could that increase homophone errors, if sounds are meant to be ignored? Have I misunderstood the distinction?”
    .
    Because you also ignore sound and letter combinations at a fine grain (i.e., smaller than the syllable). This stops some kids developing some skills that help when reading. There’s also a plain old memory effect, where the type of study helps you remember spellings better. Similar things work in other orthographies too — Try reading 5 Chinese characters in a sentence 20 times, and then see whether you can write them. Now write each character out of context 20 times, and then see if you can write them.
    .
    Shem: “Orthographic systems are treated with a lot of disdain by most linguistics anyway”
    .
    Speak for yourself!
    .
    “Naive education researchers have been wasting their time looking at their education system, instead of realising that the tests were just easy”
    .
    And naive everyone else too (economists, politicians…). There’s actually lots of comparative data on that question now, which people began collecting in the early 90s (I’m sure 🙂 ). There are even big mega-studies, and you find that, at least for early reading, English is the outlier.

  • 31
    Andrew Myers
    July 2nd, 2009 13:32

    The old rule on plural apostrophes (cf Fowler) was that they were required when the thing you were making a plural of didn’t really form a plural in the normal way. For example, “The binary number 1101 contains three 1’s and one 0.” And, “I know 5 Ph.D.’s”. The “word” before the apostrophe must be a complete noun on its own, but one for which the ordinary plural wouldn’t make sense. These days a lot of people just glue “s” onto the end, writing “1s” and “PhDs”. I think there’s something to be said for the old rule.

  • 32
    fxh
    July 6th, 2009 11:21

    fxh’s 6 cds and 3 dvds

    Fxh’s 6 cd’s and 3 dvd’s.

    FXH’s 6 CDs and 3 DVDs.

  • 33
    Andrew Norton
    July 6th, 2009 13:29

    Option 3.