About Plurals and Possessives

Saturday, October 22, 2022
by Bobbie Christmas
Q: Is The Chicago Manual of Style the standard for editing nonfiction book manuscripts? What do you say about the comments below made by two editors I’ve used?
Original line of text from the manuscript:
In the late 80’s, I was living in Dallas, Texas running a company that I had founded.
Here’s the ensuing discussion over it:
Editor 2: 80s (no apostrophe because there is no possession—and you might want to use 1980s to make it even clearer)
Editor 1: This is a question of style. Each publisher will have its own style. This is one style.
A: Chicago Style is preferred by most book publishers, so it is safest to use it for any book-length manuscript, whether fiction or nonfiction. Let me address one point at a time.
Editor number two was correct: In the late 80s, without the apostrophe, is acceptable and complies with Chicago style. Without the apostrophe 80s is plural and refers to many years. With an apostrophe it would be possessive, meaning something that belonged to the 1980s. The editor is also correct that for clarity it’s better to write the full number: In the late 1980s.
If the author wanted to say something that belonged to that era, it would be written with an apostrophe: “One 1980’s spokesperson said…”
The state should be set off by two commas, one before and one after, another issue of grammar. I’m surprised neither editor addressed that point. Correct: “In the late 1980s, I was living in Dallas, Texas, running a company… 
You touched on a point that disturbs me whenever I see it. I spot the term “writer’s conference” all the time, and that form means that writers own the conference. The correct form should be “writers conference,” which means it is a conference for writers; it is not owned by writers. You’ll notice that my own ezine is called The Writers Network News for exactly that reason. It is for writers. It is not owned by writers, although you could say it is owned by one writer—me.
Overall my point is editor number one was incorrect; the issues were not a matter of style, but of grammar, and grammar remains the same in any style.
Q: Which is correct?
His patience and soft-spoken sense of humor helps students make sense of the sometimes confusing world wide web.
His patience and soft-spoken sense of humor help students make sense of the sometimes confusing world wide web.
The latter, right? I don’t teach grammar, but the latter sounds correct.
A: The latter is correct, because of the plural subject (patience and humor). Strip the sentence of the extraneous words and use just the two abstract nouns as the subject, and it’s easier to see that it is plural: “Patience and humor help students …”
I spotted other issues, though. The sometimes confusing world wide web should be written this way: The sometimes-confusing worldwide web. Worldwide should be one word, and because both sometimes and confusing refer to one thing, the web, the term should be hyphenated.
Q: Explain to me this: it’s, its, and its’.
A: I always have to stop and think about it too, because it goes against convention. We think of words that end with an apostrophe followed by an “s” as being possessive, but in this one case, the possessive does not have an apostrophe. I’ll explain in detail.
“It’s” (with the apostrophe) is the contraction for “it is.” Example: It’s okay if John comes along. (We know “it’s” is a contraction, because the sentence can be written this way: It is okay if John comes along.) 
Its (without the apostrophe) indicates the possessive. Example: The seminar had its own schedule. 
Its’ is not a valid word.
The “its” words often get confused because they break the rules of possessive apostrophes. If you confuse these two words, you are not alone. Here’s a helpful hint: Every time you use it’s or its, ask yourself, “Am I saying IT IS?” If so, only then do you use the apostrophe (it’s).
Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas, author of Write In Style: How to Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing and owner of Zebra Communications will answer your questions too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com or BZebra@aol.com. Read Bobbie’s blog at https://www.zebraeditor.com/blog/.


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