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Apostrophes and Plurals

A new Victoria's Secret ad abuses an apostrophe, but unfortunately, it's a common error. Here's the scoop on when to use apostrophes to make things plural. (Hint: Almost never.)

By
Mignon Fogarty,
August 8, 2013
Episode #378

A couple of weeks ago, Victoria’s Secret released a new ad for a line of underwear with the brand name Body. The ad says You’ve never seen “Body’s” like this beforeBody’s with an apostrophe to make it plural. People have been writing to me about it every day since, so today, we’ll talk about the proper way to use an apostrophe to form a plural and how the writers at Victoria’s Secret could have solved their particular problem. 

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Apostrophes, Plurals, and Names

Victoria's Secret Apostrophe

Here's the problem the Victoria's Secret writers faced: Body is a brand name, which makes it a proper noun like any other name, but body is also a word—a common noun—that everyone knows. It presents them with a great opportunity to make a play on words, which they did in the ad. They couldn't make body plural the way you'd make the common noun plural (bodies) because then it's not their brand name anymore. They needed to preserve B-O-D-Y, the brand name. But it appears they didn't know how to make the brand name plural.

Regular listeners will know the answer because it's similar to the problem I talked about a couple of months ago: making brand names that end in numbers plural. You simply add s to the end, just as you would for a person's name. You have three Williams in your class and four Emilys, and Victoria's Secret is showing off their Bodys. None of those take apostrophes.

Regular people, as well as marketing writers, are confused about more than just names when it comes to apostrophes and plurals though.

Do You Ever Use Apostrophes to Make Plurals?

Yesterday, someone on Twitter asked me whether he should use an apostrophe when shortening the word professionals to pros. The short answer is no because although pro is casual, it's recognized as a word in its own right,1, 2 and since it's a regular old noun, you make it plural the same way you'd make any other common noun plural. In this case, just add s—no apostrophe—pros.

The longer answer is that it's not a completely unreasonable question because apostrophes are used to show omission. We use apostrophes in contractions to combine two words and show that we've eliminated some letters (the apostrophe in didn't shows that we've omitted the o in not), and we use apostrophes in rare instances such as rock 'n' roll (to show that we've omitted the a and d in and). Could an apostrophe in pro's show that we're writing professionals without all the letters in between pro and s? Technically, I suppose it could, but that's just not how we do it, particularly because (as I said) pro is considered a word.

Apostrophes Make Single Letters Plural. One rare instance when you use apostrophes to make things plural is in the case of single letters. If you want to write that someone should mind his p's and q's, you use an apostrophe to make p and q plural. Using the apostrophe for single letters is especially helpful when you're writing something that would be mistaken for a word. You want people to know you're talking about i's and u's, not the words is and us. [Note: Guardian style is Ps and Qs.]

Apostrophes Occasionally Make Acronyms and Initialisms Plural. Sometimes people will use an apostrophe to make an initialism such as CDs and RBIs plural, but I don't recommend it. It used to be more common, but style guides moved away from it over the years. I am not aware of any major style guide that still recommends using an apostrophe to make intialisms (without periods) plural, but since The New York Times did it as recently as 2007, it's probably still right to say that it's a style choice—just a rare and unpopular style choice. 

Victoria's Secret PJs

When I went to the Victoria's Secret website to get a screenshot of the Body's ad, I actually noticed that they were also using an apostrophe to make an initialism plural. It doesn't seem to be there now, but yesterday, they were promoting PJ's (with an apostrophe). I was surprised that nobody had complained to me about that too because I used to often get complaints about The New York Times doing it when it was their style.

Apostrophes Sometimes Make Numerals Plural. Finally, there is some disagreement about whether to use apostrophes to make numerals plural. Oxford Dictionaries says to write 7's, but The Chicago Manual of Style says to omit the apostrophe and write 7s. I'm more familiar with the no-apostrophe rule, so that's what I use.

Getting back to the Victoria's Secret Body's ad, it may have actually included a punctuation get-of-of-jail-free card.

A Caveat: The Quotation Marks

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Victoria's Secret put "Body's" in quotation marks. Why is that important? Because quotation marks can be used to highlight words that are used in odd or nonstandard ways. The Chicago Manual of Style calls them scare quotes. Therefore, the quotation marks could be considered something of a wink: as if they're saying, "We know we formatted this wrong."

How Could They Fix It?

The frustrating thing to me though, is that they could have easily avoided the problem by using typography instead of punctuation. Because "Body" is a brand name, the correct plural is "Bodys." They could have made the B-O-D-Y big and the S at the end small, and still preserved their brand name while formatting the plural correctly. It was the same frustration I had with the Mercedes ad that talked about "less doors" a few years ago, which they could have easily fixed by treating "door" as a concept and saying "less door" the same way you might talk about a woman showing less leg.  

Victoria's Secret There's 5 Ways

But maybe they just don't care. Victoria's Secret is actually a repeat punctuation and grammar offender. A couple of years ago, they ran an ad that said "There's 5 ways," which is short for "There is 5 ways," which is obviously wrong. It's a common error in speech, but less common in print.

Ah, as a writer named Christiana Ellis said, "Getting upset about marketing speak is like getting upset about the finer points of Pig Latin." And yet still, we do it.

Images: Screenshots

References

1. pro. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pro (accessed August 8, 2013).

2. pro. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pro (accessed August 8, 2013).

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