Need some apostrophe help.
March 10, 2010 8:58 AM   Subscribe

When you pluralize a number, do you need an apostrophe? What I mean is if someone's address or phone number contains the number 3 twice, do I say it has two 3's or two 3s?
posted by shelayna to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Plurals never need apostrophes, so I'd say 3s.
posted by soelo at 9:01 AM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


No apostrophe. It's neither possessive (do the 3s own something?) nor a contraction (did you remove a letter or number between the 3 and the s?). Same goes for years, so if you're abbreviating a decade, do it like this: '80s instead of like this: 80's.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:02 AM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I seem to recall that there's at least one style guide that does suggest the apostrophe here, though I can't recall which, and a quick google doesn't turn anything up. This page: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/when-to-form-a-plural-with-an-apostrophe/ says that CMS says no apostrophe, FWIW.
posted by PMdixon at 9:04 AM on March 10, 2010


You memorize the 3's times tables, though.
posted by dfriedman at 9:05 AM on March 10, 2010


I never use apostrophes for any plural, ever. Similarly, 1980s rather than 1980's. I think this is rapidly becoming the minority position though.
posted by threeants at 9:08 AM on March 10, 2010


The Winsome Parker Lewis has it. There is no reason for one when pluralizing a number.
posted by sueinnyc at 9:11 AM on March 10, 2010


I don't think the rules are as clear as some of the posters are suggesting.

This guide cites the rule that apostrophes are to be used with numbers when omission of the apostrophe could lead to confusion, noting that 0s could be read as Os.

By contrast, this guide states that an apostrophe should be used when using numbers as numbers (i.e., three 3's).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:11 AM on March 10, 2010


Plurals never need apostrophes, so I'd say 3s.

What is the plural of the first letter of the alphabet? As? Since that can also be read as, well, the word 'as', some style guides recommend apostrophes for pluralizing individual letters.
posted by phatkitten at 9:11 AM on March 10, 2010


Two '3's. It's not an apostrophe, it's single quotes for clarity.
posted by anaelith at 9:14 AM on March 10, 2010


Both options are acceptable. From Page 109 of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "The use of -'s to form the plurals of numerals, abbreviations and symbols is not now as common as pluralization with simple -s"
posted by Xalf at 9:14 AM on March 10, 2010


What is the plural of the first letter of the alphabet? As? Since that can also be read as, well, the word 'as', some style guides recommend apostrophes for pluralizing individual letters.

In instances like this, I prefer to italicize the A, so as to avoid the confusion while simultaneously avoiding the use of an apostrophe to pluralize. As.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:27 AM on March 10, 2010


Anaelith's suggestion is a good alternative that works for the single-letter problem phatkitten pointed out.

I also support restructuring sentences to avoid the issue altogether, if it doesn't make things too awkward. Like "two instances of the number three." Actually, spelling out the number works as well: "two threes" instead of "two 3s".
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:29 AM on March 10, 2010


In grammar one should strive to be clear and concise. Where your meaning is unambiguous you should not add unnecessary punctuation. So by default, you should resist using an apostrophe when indicating the plural of a number. As others have rightly pointed out in the thread already, there are cases where your meaning may be ambiguous, at which point it is appropriate and acceptable to use an apostrophe. In those cases, you should be careful to word your sentence to avoid creating different sorts of ambiguity that stems from our overloaded use of the apostrophe. You are not indicating possessiveness and you are not marking a contraction, so have a careful proofread of your sentence to make sure alternate readings do not become possible when you add an apostrophe.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:31 AM on March 10, 2010


In instances like this, I prefer to italicize the A, so as to avoid the confusion while simultaneously avoiding the use of an apostrophe to pluralize. As.

This won't work as well with pen and paper. Heck, it doesn't even work now that I've quoted your comment using the Metafilter italics convention.

Anyway, using an apostrophe for plurals is definitely OK in some cases. That's all.
posted by phatkitten at 9:31 AM on March 10, 2010


Two '3's. It's not an apostrophe, it's single quotes for clarity.

Maybe for British English. Single quotes can't be used that way in American English.

Every style guide I've seen (and my job entails poring over many) says you use the apostrophe for plural with letters—as the Oakland A's baseball team does—but that one should not for numbers. Example: I Love the '80s. You have to have the first apostrophe, but to have a second one would look weird, which is why a lot of people leave off the first one and end up doing it doubly wrong.

So, descriptivist answer: it's common to see 3's, maybe even more common than 3s, so don't worry about it. Prescriptivist answer: there's no good reason for 3's except that people seem to be unnerved by letters and numbers in such close proximity. I say, those people are uncomfortable about themselves! I suppose it's obvious I'm kind of a prescriptivist on this one...
posted by AugieAugustus at 9:32 AM on March 10, 2010


Actually, spelling out the number works as well: "two threes" instead of "two 3s".

This is a pretty good point, as most style guides will advise you to spell out numbers up to a certain amount (which amount differs from guide to guide-- I believe Chicago spells out anything below 100).
posted by shakespeherian at 9:33 AM on March 10, 2010


This won't work as well with pen and paper. Heck, it doesn't even work now that I've quoted your comment using the Metafilter italics convention.

That's true, but I like to think that context makes the quibble irrelevant, and that 'While grading papers, he seldom gave As' or some such is no more confusing than any sentence that uses any other homonym: less, actually, as the A is capitalized.

Mostly I just really hate apostrophes for pluralizing.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:38 AM on March 10, 2010


Either acceptable. As always: use style guide for your field or publication to be in line with their conventions.
posted by Postroad at 10:08 AM on March 10, 2010


Yes, there is no one right or wrong here, or even one "here is how this is actually used by speakers of the language."

It's a style issue, and you should do whatever the style guide for your intended publication/audience tells you to do, even if you don't personally like it. Or, if there's only an implicit style guide (ie an instructor's comments), follow the implicit style guide.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:34 AM on March 10, 2010


I agree with everyone saying no apostrophe. As clarity is important (and assuming the numeral is required rather than spelling it out), I'd use the following in descending order as necessary to provide this:

3s
3s
'3's


The argument that an apostrophe should be used to aid in clarity is spurious to me - in most cases I can think of, it's much more ambiguous. Writing 3's should be a last resort due to the potential confusion that can arise.

dfriedman: "You memorize the 3's times tables, though."

What? Can you explain the logic behind that or is it an Americanism I'm not familiar with?
posted by turkeyphant at 10:58 AM on March 10, 2010


I know that it's gauche in most circles now, and the majority of responses here reflects it. However, I've often used an apostrophe to pluralize numbers, as numbers are symbols and my internal style guide (which of course is not absolute or binding on anybody else) has generally used apostrophes to pluralize symbols. This is not as rare as you think, and it used to be even less rare; quoth Wikipedia, as good a source as any I guess:
“An apostrophe is used by some writers to form a plural for abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols where adding just s rather than 's may leave things ambiguous or inelegant... The apostrophe is sometimes used in forming the plural of numbers (for example, 1000's of years); however, as with groups of years, it is unnecessary: there is no possibility of misreading. Most sources are against this usage.”
I'm pretty sure (someone can correct me if I'm wrong) that older editions of the MLA suggested doing this, and I think the Chicago Manual used to as well. But neither suggest it now, and I have a feeling it's part of a growing trend against the apostrophe. Interestingly enough in these supposedly descriptivist times, there's been a massive backlash against 'improper' apostrophe usage. I think it's probably the most common language rant I hear. So whereas a generation ago it might have been a bit more acceptable to use an apostrophe to pluralize symbols and numbers with an apostrophe, now it's pretty widely frowned upon.
posted by koeselitz at 11:23 AM on March 10, 2010


Meant to add the Wikipedia link.
posted by koeselitz at 11:24 AM on March 10, 2010


The correct plural is "threes." You should never have to pluralize a numeral-- it's just bad style.
posted by Electrius at 12:01 PM on March 10, 2010


Well, one example: it used to be pretty much standard to use an apostrophe when writing "1980's" or "80's."
posted by koeselitz at 12:06 PM on March 10, 2010


It varies.

Associated Press Style has no apostrophes after figures, so it would be 3s. Although in AP style you should probably write out the word (threes) instead of the figure.

My AP Stylebook (2008) does note that this is different than what is recommended in Webster's New World College Dictionary.
posted by chris p at 12:18 PM on March 10, 2010


as the Oakland A's baseball team does

"A's" is an abbreviation of "Athletics."
posted by kirkaracha at 12:28 PM on March 10, 2010


Well, one example: it used to be pretty much standard to use an apostrophe when writing "1980's" or "80's."

I think sometimes when this is written, it is indicating possession. "1980's fashion" is literally the fashion belonging to the 80s.
posted by soelo at 12:58 PM on March 10, 2010


I think sometimes when this is written, it is indicating possession. "1980's fashion" is literally the fashion belonging to the 80s.

Except it isn't. "1980's fashion" would literally refer only to the fashion in the year 1980. "1980s' fashion" would refer to fashion belonging to the decade.
posted by cerebus19 at 1:03 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay, "80's fashion" is literally the fashion belonging to the 80s.
posted by soelo at 1:07 PM on March 10, 2010


Wouldn't that literally mean "the fashion belonging to 80?" It's a pluralization. It's just using that pluralization adjectivally, as one might say "a United States flag" or "a mathematics theorem."
posted by koeselitz at 1:24 PM on March 10, 2010


Okay, "80's fashion" is literally the fashion belonging to the 80s.

But in this term, 80 is singular if the apostrophe is before the s. Which would mean that '80's fashion' refers to the fashion of 80.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:24 PM on March 10, 2010


Seems to me that "3's" is a contraction of "threes", therefore, the apostrophe is correct. As has been said, using the digit isn't correct in the first place.
posted by Goofyy at 1:41 PM on March 10, 2010


Seems to me that "3's" is a contraction of "threes"

I don't think symbols count as contractions.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:43 PM on March 10, 2010


> The correct plural is "threes." You should never have to pluralize a numeral-- it's just bad style.

This is wrong and ridiculous, as are many of the answers here. Why do people feel free to answer style questions off the top of their head, based on no actual knowledge, when they wouldn't dream of doing so for, say, computer questions? Note to poster: ignore all responses that do not cite a style guide. The most widely used one in the US, Chicago, says (9.58): "Numbers form their plural by adding s. No apostrophe is needed."

And koeselitz is correct that usage has been shifting away from apostrophes. (Corollary: There is no one, eternal, "correct" answer. Style is determined by style guides, which differ among themselves, and usage changes over time. Your personal preference is interesting only to yourself.)
posted by languagehat at 1:53 PM on March 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


This guide cites the rule that apostrophes are to be used with numbers when omission of the apostrophe could lead to confusion, noting that 0s could be read as Os.

But using that logic, you'd put apostrophes anywhere there's a potentially confusing plural after an S is added. Like... in "apostrophes."

I'm guessing part of the reason people have become so reliant on apostrophes for plurals is that some words look "wrong" to them, especially if they end in a vowel. Technically it should be "Dos and Don'ts," but you usually see "Do's and Don'ts." Their thinking might be that "dos" looks more like "dose" instead of "dooz."

"Photos" or "fees" might look funny for the same reason. Not that I agree with them, of course. Damn the grocer and his apostrophe.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:06 PM on March 10, 2010


"A's" is an abbreviation of "Athletics."

*headsmack* So it is. But style guides do say apostrophes are a good idea for plurals of letters (otherwise "As are all I got on my report card this semester" can be read as "as"). So I guess Oakland got it doubly right.

What? Can you explain the logic behind that or is it an Americanism I'm not familiar with?

dfriedman means "You can memorize the times tables belonging to three." Times tables means multiplication tables.

But using that logic, you'd put apostrophes anywhere there's a potentially confusing plural after an S is added. Like... in "apostrophes."

And that is becoming so common that, one day, it'll probably be allowable by most stylebooks. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad after all.

To get back to the poster's original question, the best thing to do in situations like this where nobody can agree on the usage (and your AskMe post spirals into chaos!) is to circumvent the issue entirely. This is often my advice to highly sticky mechanics questions. You could obey the most common standard only to wind up with your reader getting indignant because they follow the less common standard. So unless there's a very compelling reason not to, spell it out as "threes." No symbols, no apostrophes, obvious plural, everybody's happy.
posted by AugieAugustus at 5:41 AM on March 11, 2010


Electrius: "The correct plural is "threes." You should never have to pluralize a numeral-- it's just bad style."

It's fairly trivial to come up with plenty of good reasons for giving plurals of numerals.

AugieAugustus: "dfriedman means "You can memorize the times tables belonging to three." Times tables means multiplication tables."

I got that but it doesn't really make sense to me. I can understand the "third times tables", the "three times tables" but not really the "three's times tables" (belonging to the three) or the "threes' time tables" (belonging to all of the threes in the times table).

"And that is becoming so common that, one day, it'll probably be allowable by most stylebooks. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad after all."

It would be bad because it would rob language of nuance and differentiated meaning for the sake of ignorance.
posted by turkeyphant at 7:20 AM on March 11, 2010


[few comments removed - pls go to metatalk if you need to debate this, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 1:38 PM on March 16, 2010


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