The apostrophe of plurality — English’s little hidden gem

This is just a quick note for jotting down a couple of references that I’ve dug out to prove that the apostrophe is indeed used in English to form plurals. I expect to find more references in time, as I am absolutely certain that it was in a certain edition of the Chicago Manual of Style that I first saw this rule written down.
I find the aversion, among some translators, of using the apostrophe for forming plurals disturbing. Aside from the fact that I actually read this rule from a style book and I actually find it reasonable1, it is also my personal feeling that graphic designers are at least partly to blame2 for this attitude. As someone who feel part of — or at least connected to — both communities, I feel obliged to jot down every proof I can find. Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Resource by Maxine Ruvinsky. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. 2006. Its verdict on the apostrophe (p. 151): “The apostrophe has three possible functions: it indicates possession…; it shows missing letters in contractions…; and it is used to form the plurals of letters, numbers, and short words being referred to as words.” The Punctuation Handbook by Joan I. Miller and Bruce J. Taylor. West Linn, Oregon: Alcove Publishing Company. 1989. In the section “Apostrophe. II. Use an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to form plurals.” (p. 10) it lists: “A. Of small letters.’ ‘ B. Of abbreviations with periods, and capital letters that would be confusing with only an ‘s’”. “ C. … Both an apostrophe and an “s” are used if the ‘s’ ending alone would cause confusion.” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1992. Under the entry “Apostrophe.” and the subhead “Plurality.” (p. 75) it says: “Although this practice [of using the apostrophe for noun plurals] is rare in 20c astandard usage, the apostrophe of plurality continues in at least five areas: (1) With abbreviations such as V.I.P.’s or VIP’s, although forms such as VIPs are now widespread. (2) With letters of the alphabet, as in His i’s are just like his a’s and Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. … (3) In decade dates, such as the 1980’s, although such apostrophe-free forms as the 1980s are widespread, as are such truncations as the ’80s, the form the ’80’s being unlikely. (4) In family names, especially if they end in -s, as in keeping up with the Jones’s (5) …the greengrocer’s apostrophe…” It is worth noting that in The Oxford Companion to the English Language, the much-despised “greengrocer’s apostrophe” is just one usage among five; that is, the majority — four out of five — are actually standard usage. This suggests that the aversion of the apostrophe of plurality in English falls under the same category as the avoidance of the word 3 among Cantonese speakers — it is nothing but overcorrection. No one needs overcorrection. Defending the apostrophe is somewhat controversial but it is time that we ended the madness and gave the apostrophe of plurality some fair treatment.
Notes: 1 It is interesting to note that the four standard use cases listed in The Oxford Companion to the English Language are also precisely the same cases where in Finnish one would use a colon to mark off plural and other inflexional endings. I know someone in the UK who actually liked the Finnish “colon of plurality” so much that he used it in English; and I told him that in English we have the apostrophe, which I think is just as good. Had we not abandoned this use of the apostrophe, we would not be seeing so many atrocities such as “CDS” and “FAQS”. Rather than being old-fashioned, the English apostrophe of plurality is in fact years ahead of its time when it comes to the prevention of machine-generated typos; we have only ourselves to blame for all these mistakes in capitalization because they can all be prevented by a simple and standard use of the apostrophe. [Back to text] 2 I still need to look for a reference, but the rule is that in cases where the apostrophe is needed to form plurals, it cannot be dropped unless there is a typographic contrast. A lot of graphic designers hate punctuation and spaces and so they use typographic contrast in lieu of punctuation and spaces in logos and posters. It is not too much of a stretch to claim that people got accustomed to seeing these plural forms without the apostrophe only because that is how graphic designers presented them. In a sense, graphic designers are directly responsible for the disappearance of the apostrophe. [Back to text] 3 A form of the verb to be. It is considered part of the formal register in Mandarin, but in Cantonese it is the normal form used in everyday speech. Many Cantonese speakers feel that because the word is used in colloquial speech it must then be non-standard usage. This cannot be further from the truth. [Back to text]
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