Fiction Style Guide: Plurals and Possessives

The more you get right in your manuscript before submitting to editors, the less work they'll have to do on mechanical issues—and the more time they can spend on making your writing shine. Plus, learning the conventions of fiction style* can save you money.


*This is Articulate Editing house style, which is based on generally accepted fiction conventions (in the US) and a pinch of personal opinion. Most of what is written here will apply across the board. If a guideline has wiggle room, I'll let you know. And if you're working with a publisher, make sure you follow their specifications as their house style may differ slightly. (This style guide also applies to creative nonfiction.)


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Plurals


Standard plural forms


To form the plural of most English words, stick an s on the end. Unless the word ends with s, j, z, x, ch, or sh, then add es. But there's lots of exceptions, so if you're unsure of the correct plural form of a word, check Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary or Merriam Webster's Unabridged online dictionary. If there's more than one option, choose the first (unless the plurals are used for different purposes.)


To form the plural of words that end in y, change the y to ie and add s.


family/families
peony/peonies
one try/two tries

Many, but not all, nouns that end in f or fe change to ve in the plural.


knife/knives
wolf/wolves
leaf/leaves

But ...


cliff/cliffs
chef/chefs
giraffe/giraffes

Words that end in o are inconsistent. With most you add s, with some es, and a few are correct either way. Check your dictionary for the preferred spelling.


echo/echoes
studio/studios
calico/calicos or calicoes
zero/zeros or zeroes


Plurals of compound nouns


The plurals of many compound nouns will be in the dictionary. For those that aren't, use common sense: the more significant part gets made plural.


jack-of-all-trades/jacks-of-all-trades
day laborer/day laborers
area of expertise/areas of expertise


Plurals with italics and quotation marks


To form the plural of a word inside quotation marks, keep the s inside the quotation marks.


Your speech was full of "like"s. X
How many "abracadabras" must I say?

With Italicized words, the s is usually set in roman.


How many abracadabras must I say?

But ...


With plurals of foreign words that are italicized, italicize the whole word.


zapato/zapatos


Plurals of letters, numerals, and abbreviations


Plurals of uppercase letters, numerals, and abbreviations are normally formed by adding the letter s.


I've seen three UFOs.
She earned all As.
The 1990s were a great decade.

But ...


To form the plurals of lowercase letters, add 's. Italicize the letter as letter, but leave the apostrophe and s in roman.


x's and y's
"How many s's in Mississippi?"

But ... these common expressions are set in roman.


mind your p's and q's
dot your i's and cross your t's


Plurals of proper nouns


Most plurals of proper nouns are formed by adding s, or es if the name ends in ch, j, s, sh, x, or z. Exceptions can be found in the dictionary.


the Chavez family/the Chavezes
the Williamses
the Kennedys
the two Germanys (not Germanys)
How many Monets are in your art collection?
There are three Toms in my class.

Never use an apostrophe to form a plural of a surname.


The Chavez's are coming over. X

Names that end in a silent s or x are best left singular.


Two Joneses, two Delacroix, and three Deschamps are coming.

Collective nouns can be singular or plural.


people
flock
family

Whether or not they take a singular or plural verb depends on whether the group is acting as a whole or as individuals.


My family is the best!
His family are constantly at each others' throats.


Possessives


Singular nouns


To form the possessive of most singular nouns, add an apostrophe, then an s.


the seat of the chair/the chair's seat
John's shoes
the elephant's trunk

This includes abbreviations and numbers.


the Glock 17's bullets
the UFO's blinking lights

And nouns that end in an unpronounced s.


Illinois's capital
the marquis's estate

This also applies to singular nouns (common and proper) that end in s, x, or z.


James's keys
the boss's daughter
Mrs. Chavez's car
the fox's tail

But ... this is an area where styles vary.


Some publishers may prefer just an apostrophe after singular nouns that end in s, and independent authors can decided for themselves how to style singular nouns that end in s. Remember, euphony can trump rules if you end up with a phrase full of sibilance, like "Seamus's sustenance."


CMOS used to recommend that classical and biblical names ending in the "eez" sound take only an apostrophe, but now recommend adding 's.


Euripides's
Socrates's

But ...


Use your ear (and the dictionary). If common phrases don't include the extra s sound when spoken aloud, leave it out.


Achilles' heel
for goodness' sake

Other versions that follow the "for ... sake" pattern follow the general rule. Again, your ear will guide you.


for Jesus's sake
for appearance's sake

When forming a possessive of an italicized word, the 's should be in roman if the surrounding text is in roman.


To the Lighthouse's use of imagery
the letter m's double humps

But ...


Avoid forming possessives of words in quotations. Rephrase instead.


"The Raven"'s use of imagery X
Poe's use of imagery in The Raven


Plural nouns


To form the possessive of a plural noun that ends in s or es, just add an apostrophe.


your parents' house
members' rights
ladies' room

This is true of surnames, as well. However, surnames tend to confuse people. If you're writing about two or more people, first form the plural (see above), then add an apostrophe.


Miss Chavez lives alone → Miss Chavez's home
two or more Chavezes share a home → the Chavezes' home

With irregular plurals (that do not end in s), add an apostrophe and an s.


children's clothing
women's restroom
his teeth's evenness

Words whose singular and plural form are the same, and end in s, take only an apostrophe in both forms.


politics' machinations
that species' peculiarities
economics' principles

But ... it's often better to avoid the possessive by using "of."


the principles of economics

Places, organizations, and publications that end with a plural word take only an apostrophe, even though the entity is singular.


the United States' international reputation
Agoura Hills' parks
New York Times' editorial staff

With group names that imply ownership or participation, use the apostrophe unless it's left out of an organization's official name. However, this is a rule in flux, and different style guides handle this differently. So if you're self-publishing you can choose to leave out the apostrophe if the sense is less about ownership than participation. But check the dictionary—the apostrophes aren't optional in Mother's Day or President's Day.


farmers' market (or farmers market)
workers' union
Diners Club


Compound nouns


With compound nouns, the last word becomes possessive.


This jack-of-all-trade's versatility is legendary.
The attorney general's testimony is crucial.
Check out the farmers' market's offerings!

This is true even if the compound noun is plural.


Jacks-of-all-trade's versatility is apparent in the name.
the attorneys general's appointments (the appointments of more than one attorney general)
my sisters-in-law's attitudes (speaker has more than one sister-in-law)


Multiple possession


If two or more people own something jointly, then only the last one listed takes an apostrophe.


Gerry and Martha's house.
Bob and Jim's boat.

If they possess the same category of things, but possess them individually, then all take apostrophes.


Sally's and Betsy's hair got blown around.
Bob's and Jim's clothes were hanging over the side of the boat.


Possessive pronouns


The stand-alone possessive pronouns are mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, ours, and whose. The modifying possessive pronouns are my, your, his, her, its, their, our, and whose.


Possessive pronouns never take apostrophes. Because nouns do, it's easy to associate apostrophes with possession and get confused, especially with its/it's.


its = belonging to it
it's = contraction of "it is"

Other commonly confused possessive pronouns:


your/you're (contraction of "you are")
their/there (meaning "that place"/they're (contraction of "they are")
whose/who's (contraction of "who is")
our/are (present tense second person singular and present tense plural of verb "to be")


Possessives with gerunds


Gerunds, which act as nouns, are modified with adjectives—so traditionally, nouns and pronouns right before a gerund needed to be possessive modifiers. "Playing" and "making" are the gerunds in this example.


I really enjoyed Sally's playing.
I can't understand his making do with so little.

According to CMOS, using the possessive is optional after a preposition.


I was annoyed by Sally making those faces at me.
Are you okay with me writing that article?

When a noun or pronoun is used instead of a possessive modifier, it's called a fused participle.


I can't understand him making do with so little.

Fused participles were once considered an error on par with "that's me hairbrush." However, they're becoming more and more common in speech and informal writing. The argument for allowing this construction is that the -ing words aren't being used as gerunds but as participles modifying the noun.


With fiction writing, do what sounds natural for your character's or narrator's voice. If your character is formal, educated, or pompous, using the possessive with a gerund will ring true.


"My cleaning up your mess is going to cost you."

But if your character is an ordinary Joe, the fused participle may be just the ticket.


"Me cleaning up your mess is gonna cost you."

But ...


Watch out for potential ambiguities created by fused participles.


I hate that man running all over the place.

Do you hate the man or the running?