GrammarPhile Blog

Not sure how to form plurals? Read this!

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Jun 7, 2011 5:30:00 AM


The zookeeper wanted to order four buffaloes for his new display, but he didn't know how to pluralize buffalo.

Should he add just s or es? Fearing a blunder, and not wanting to display his ignorance, he wrote "Please send me one buffalo." Beneath his signature, he added, "PS: Make it four." No one was the wiser. Had he consulted a good dictionary, he'd have found that it can be buffaloes or buffalos.

Here are some tips for proper plurals, from The Chicago Manual of Style:

  • Standard forms. Most nouns form their plural by adding s or -- if they end in ch, j, s, sh, x, or z -- by adding es. Since no English speakers should need help with such plural forms as thumbs, churches, fires, or boys, these are not listed in Webster. Webster does, however, give plural forms for words ending in y that change to ies (baby, etc.); for words ending in o (ratio, potato, etc.); for words such as crocus, datum, or alumna; and for all words with irregular plurals (child, leaf, etc.).
  • Alternative plurals. Where Webster gives two forms of the plural (zeros and zeroes, millenia or millenniums), normally go with the first. Different forms of the plural, however, are occasionally used for different purposes. A book may have two indexes and a mathematical expression may have two indices, as indicated in Webster's entry for "index."
  • Compound nouns. Webster gives the plural form of most compounds that are tricky (fathers-in-law, coups d'etat, courts-martial, chefs-d'ouevre, etc.). For those not listed, common sense can usually provide the answer.
    • masters of arts
    • history majors
    • child wives
  • Proper nouns. Names of persons and other capitalized nouns normally form the plural by adding s or es (but see next point).
    • five Toms, four Dicks, and three Harrys
    • keeping up with the Joneses
    • rainy Sundays
    • the two Germanys reunited
    • Romanys were persecuted
    • Afghans and Pakistanis
    An apostrophe is never used to form the plural of a family name: "The Jeffersons live here" (not "Jefferson's"). With names such as Waters or Rogers, consider rewording to avoid the awkwardness of "Waterses" or "Rogerses."
  • Italicized words. If italicized terms -- names of newspapers, titles of books, and the like -- are used in the plural, the s is normally set in roman. A title already in plural form, however, may be left unchanged. In case of doubt, avoid the plural by rephrasing.
    • two Chicago Tribunes and three Milwaukee Journal-Sentinels
    • several Madame Bovarys
    • too many sics
    • four New York Times
  • Noun coinages. Words and hyphenated phrases that are not nouns but are used as nouns form the plural by adding s or es. To avoid an awkward appearance, an adjustment in spelling (or sometimes an apostrophe) may be needed.
    • Ifs and buts
    • dos and don'ts
    • threes and fours
    • thank-yous
    • maybe's
    • yesses and noes (or yes's and no's, especially if maybe's is also used)
  • Use of apostrophe. To avoid confusion, lowercase letters and abbreviations with two or more interior periods or with both capital and lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s.
    • x's and y's
    • M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s (or MAs and PhD's)

The usual bottom line: Consult a good dictionary when in doubt

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Topics: pluralize, plural

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