The Oxbridge Editing Blog 29th September 2009

A few notes on plurals, commas and apostrophes.

29th September 2009
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When should you drop the ‘s’?

When a plural ending in ‘s’ (e.g. “elephants”, but not “formulae” or “sheep”) possesses something, the ‘s’ following the apostrophe is omitted (elephants’, formulae’s, sheep’s). However, there is no strict rule on this in the case of singular proper nouns ending in ‘s’. Therefore, ‘James’s’ and ‘James” are both correct, but many people opt for the latter spelling. In the case of nouns ending ‘ss’ (mass, princess etc.), an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’ is used to denote possession (princess’s, mass’s etc.).


The elephant’s cage was very cramped. (Single elephant)

The elephants’ cage was very cramped. (Multiple elephants)

Zeus’s wrath was unleashed.


Zeus’ wrath was unleashed.

The princess’s chair was too short. (One princess)


The princesses’ chairs were too short. (Multiple princesses, so revert back to the original rule for plurals.)

Commas and apostrophes – before or after?

When writing articles and essays, many authors can become confused by grammatical rules surrounding the application of commas and apostrophes in conjunction with a plural. We all know that an apostrophe is used to define possession and contractions, but not plurality. However, when combining the two, there becomes a ‘grey area’, about which people often become uncertain. The following guidelines and examples should help in ascertaining the correct usage of punctuation when undertaking your work:

When a comma is required directly after a word, it should be placed after the apostrophe, whatever the circumstance. Some writers, particularly in the case of possessive plurals, make the mistake of putting the comma prior to the apostrophe, as follows:

Unlike the other horses,’ his hooves had recently been re-shoed.

This is incorrect. We all know that had it been a single horse, it would have been incorrect to have written “horse,’s”, and the same rule applies to plurals. Instead, the sentence should be:

Unlike the other horses’, his hooves had recently been re-shoed.

Confusing plurals and apostrophes

A common mistake amongst writers, especially when working hurriedly to make a deadline, is to confuse plurals and apostrophes of words ending in the letter ‘Y’. You know that the word ‘trys‘ is incorrect, but are unsure whether it should be “tries” or “try’s”. Just remember, an apostrophe is only used to denote either possession or contraction, nothing else. So if you attempt to write “try’s”, you are either;

a) assuming the word “try” is a noun which is in possession of something.

or b) contracting the two words “try” and “is”.

The word “try’s” will almost always be incorrect, unless in sentences such as:

Try’s a 3-letter word.

In formal writing, contractions should be avoided as much as possible, and it would be best to write such a sentence out fully.

Slightly harder words in this category would include “comedy” and “pharmacy”. These sentences should show how plurals and apostrophes should be used.

The pharmacies are open until 9 in Skegness. (Plural)

The pharmacy’s open until 9 in Skegness. (Singular, with a contraction.) Don’t use this in formal writing, instead: The pharmacy is open until 9 in Skegness.

The pharmacy’s door is locked at 9 in Skegness. (Possessive) The subject of the word is now the door, and not the pharmacy itself.