The Perils Of Plurals

President-elect Donald Trump has proven he has a lot of beef with a lot of people, including people in Chicago. Back in February 2016, as a mere candidate, he took to his always entertaining Twitter account to threaten the Ricketts family, owners of the Chicago Cubs, because matriarch Marlene Ricketts donated millions of dollars to a political action committee working against his Republican-nominee campaign: “I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!”

Clearly, The Donald does not read this column, because that tweet is a minefield of grammatical missteps. First of all, he misspelled Ricketts, demonstrating the dangers of posting your thoughts on the internet the instant they pop into your head. If you don’t take the time to edit yourself, you might end up misspelling a word or name (or publicly threatening to blackmail someone; oddly enough, though, the Ricketts family ended up supporting Trump in his general election campaign).

Second, since the word “family” is a collective noun, it should take the singular verb “owns,” not the plural verb “own.” And while Trump did a nice job of using commas to set off the nonessential phrase “who own the Chicago Cubs,” he followed it up with a “yuge” comma splice at the end of the tweet. “They better be careful” and “They have a lot to hide” are both complete sentences, so they should be separated by a period or a semicolon, not a comma.

In addition to these mistakes, Trump’s tweet also spawned errors in a Chicago newspaper that covered this bout of his bizarre behavior: A headline in the paper referred to the object of his ire as the “Rickett family,” while the accompanying article simply called them “the Ricketts.”

While we could assume that the newspaper staff, like Trump, simply didn’t double-check the spelling of the family’s name, these mistakes actually demonstrate one of the many confusing rules of creating plurals: When a proper noun, such as a last name, ends in “s,” you create the plural form of that name by adding “es.” Therefore, the plural form of Ricketts would be Rickettses.

A common mistake, however, is using a last name that ends in “s” as both the singular and plural forms of the word, as you would for unmarked plurals  like moose and deer. I’m guessing the author of the newspaper article in question made this mistake in calling the family “the Ricketts,” and the copy-editor saw that and assumed it was the plural form of “Rickett,” which then ended up in the headline.

As someone with the last name Jacobs, I have mixed feelings about the proper plural form of last names ending in “s.” While I know and follow the rule, that doesn’t mean I’m a fan of it (sort of like how members of the Republican party did not necessarily support Trump). “Jacobses” sounds a little too much like something spoken by Gollum from “Lord of the Rings” for my liking, so I usually write around it, avoiding the plural form by using alternate construction, like “the Jacobs family” instead.

Grammar fans may have noticed one other questionable aspect of Trump’s tweet that I haven’t yet mentioned: the use of the punctuation pile “$’s” to represent the word “money” (presumably to fit Twitter’s character count limit, which still could have accommodated the additional “t” in the name Ricketts). While I dislike misplaced apostrophes almost as much as I dislike unnecessary quotation marks, Trump is probably right on this one. (Please do not take that quote out of context.)

According to the A.P. Stylebook, apostrophes should be used to create plurals of single letters. For example, “I got straight A’s this semester.” Although there’s no rule for the dollar sign, one could reasonably assume you’d treat it like a single letter in this case.

Please note, however, that this is the exception to the rule. In virtually every case, you should not use an apostrophe to form a plural. Apostrophes are used in possessives and contractions, but not in plurals (except for single letters—or dollar signs, possibly). So “Josh Groban’s fans can’t wait for him to sign autographs,” not “Josh Groban’s fan’s can’t wait for him to sign autograph’s.”

This rule goes for last names as well. A common holiday-time mistake is using an apostrophe when you are simply pluralizing your family’s last name, say on a Christmas card: “Happy holidays from the Bryant’s!” is incorrect. Adding just an “s” is correct, “… the Bryants!”

There are myriad rules governing plurals (which I won’t get into here), but if you only remember one, it should be the one I just mentioned—apostrophes do not signify plurality. If your last name ends in an “s,” I’d recommend that you also remember the rule for making it plural. And if you are running for high office, you should consider editing your thoughts before releasing them into the world.

About the author

Amanda Jacobs is a grammar expert who worked at 22nd Century Media as chief copy editor and editor for three years. She is currently a public relations specialist at the American Academy of Dermatology.

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