Plurals and Hyphens: Exceptional Differences

We’ve talked about the rules for forming plurals, which are actually pretty straightforward:

  • Generally, to form a plural, add “s” to the singular word.

The most common exceptions are:

  • If the word ends in a consonant (any letter other than a, e, i, o, u) plus “y,” drop the “y” and add “ies.” For example: company = companies; bakery = bakeries.
  • If the word ends in a consonant plus “o,” add “es.” For example: tomato = tomatoes; potato = potatoes.
  • If the word ends in “x,” “s,” “z,” “ch,” or “sh,” add “es.” For example: box = boxes; Jones = Joneses; buzz = buzzes; peach = peaches; bush = bushes; bulrush = bulrushes.

We also noted that there are words that change in the plural form: woman = women; man = men; child = children, and so on.

And there are a few words that are both singular and plural: “deer,” for one example.

Let’s add another: For abbreviations, we generally follow the same rule: Add “s” to make an abbreviation plural if you can do it without adding confusion. For example, CPU = CPUs; 1980 = 1980s.

Then we said that plural words – not plural possessive words, but plural words – never use apostrophes. To paraphrase that wonderful line from The Pirates of Penzance song: “What, never?” “No never!” “What never?” “Well, hardly ever….”

And here is an exception: Note that the following are not possessive words, but plural words, even though they have an apostrophe:

  • The exception is: When needed for clarity, “ ‘s” is used to form plurals, but only for lowercase letters, or abbreviations with periods. For example: p’s and q’s; f.o.b.’s.

Changing the Subject: Now Let’s Talk About Using Hyphens:

So now you’ve had a chance to assimilate last week’s tips on how and when to use hyphens and dashes – not all authorities agree on all points, and the whole discussion can become quite complicated. The dictionary is your final authority, and last week’s guidelines should help with the most common uses when you don’t have a dictionary handy.

Here comes yet another consideration: Arguably, in addition to dividing words at the end of a line, hyphens are perhaps most often used between two or more words to create a compound idea that describes the following word.

For example: a better-than-average hamburger; a first-rate pitcher. But if these words come after the word they are describing, they are very often individual words. For example: The hamburger tasted better than average. The pitcher seemed first rate.

Another, less-frequently-seen guideline for not using hyphens:

  • Do not use a hyphen to link a group of words that includes “very,” or a word ending in “ly.” For example: “Everyone was there for a very specific reason.” Or, “This is an easily remembered quotation.”

In your reading this week, (1) watch for plurals correctly formed, and (2) see if you can pick up hyphens correctly used – either where they should be used, or not used where they should not be used.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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