Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University

Plurals vs. possessives

Plurals and possessives are misused so frequently that they deserve special attention.

Plurals vs. apostrophe "s"

Most nouns form their plural (more than one in number) by adding “s”. Or, if they end in “ch”, “j”, “s”, “sh”, “x”, or “z”, by adding “es”. There are many other variations and oddities that the Canadian Oxford Dictionary can clarify. However, when we mix possessives—indicating belonging, usually formed by adding an apostrophe plus “s”—with plural nouns or proper nouns that end in “s”, we often struggle with the apostrophe. Some people add one before or after any old “s”, as if for good measure, without understanding its function.

In the example below, the fruit is sold in multiples (plural), while the manager gets an apostrophe plus "s" to indicate belonging (possessive).

Manager’s special: plums and peaches half price

A noun ending in “s” takes a possessive by adding the apostrophe only. TRU Style holds to that rule, proper noun or otherwise.

the cat’s pajamas (one cat), the cats’ pajamas (multiple cats)
Mrs. Smith’s cat (one person owns one cat), the Smiths’ cat (a family owns a cat)
at the Thompson Rivers’ confluence (two rivers, the apostrophe indicates belonging)
Kamloops’ best restaurant, Kamloops’ university
Gilles’ research, but Elise’s schedule

In the last example, “Gilles”, pronounced with a silent “s”, does not take an additional “s” after the apostrophe, but because "Elise" ends in an “e” in print, we add the “s” after the apostrophe.

Proper nouns ending in "es" can add extra confusion to using plurals and possessives, perhaps due to the way they are often spoken aloud. In the first example below, the classes (plural) belong to Ms. Jules (possessive). The proper noun in the second example is plural, Juleses, but also possessive (their presentations) and requires the apostrophe, without “s”.

The presentations in Ms. Jules’ classes will start next week.
Despite being identical twins, the Juleses’ presentations were remarkably different.

Its or it's?

Unlike pronouns “she” and “he” that have handy possessive forms “hers” and “his”, the possessive form of pronoun “it” causes no end of grief because in this one exception, we add the possessive “s” without the apostrophe.

the university launched its new brand
it’s rare for that tree to drop its leaves so early in the season

Remember that “it’s” (starting the second example) is the contraction of “it is”; the apostrophe replacing the missing “i” in the contraction trumps the rule for creating the possessive. The possessive “its” loses its apostrophe to differentiate.

Plurals of words used as nouns

Many words that are not nouns are used as nouns, and form the plural in the same fashion, by adding “s” or “es”. Note the only apostrophe in “don’ts” is the contraction of “not” with the apostrophe standing in for the missing “o”.

ifs, ands or buts
dos and don’ts
yeses and nos

Plurals for letters, abbreviations and numbers

Capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations in lower case, capitals or mixed case all usually form the plural by adding “s”.

the three Rs
MAs, PhDs
the 1990s, the ’60s
vols., eds.

Exception: lower case letters used as words do use an apostrophe with “s” for plurals, to avoid confusion between words such as “as” and “a’s”, for example.

x’s and y’s
mind your p’s and q’s
dot your i’s and cross your t’s 

Plurals of compound nouns

Many compound nouns occur in our university setting. Their plural forms may be rarely seen and unfamiliar, but generally follow a pattern: the first noun is the one receiving the plural "s". In the degree examples below, note each indicates multiples of a degree. The singular forms can confuse the issue: the Bachelor of Arts program, but a bachelor's degree; a Master of Education, but a master's degree. See the Word List for common misspellings.

bachelors of arts, but bachelor's degrees
masters of education, but master's degrees
presidents emeritus
professors emerita

Refer to the Canadian Press Stylebook for more comprehensive information on uses of the apostrophe and other exceptions to the general rules for plurals.