June 25th, 2008
Quiz wrap-up / that said / master's or masters degree?
by Barbara Wallraff
A lot of you are going to be mad at me because of the “singular versus plural” quiz I ran a couple of weeks ago. It was really hard. I put the quiz sentences in an order that almost forced you to doubt what you know. For instance, a sentence in which “the number of people” should have been singular came right before one in which “a number” should have been plural. Both those things are usual for “number” -- that is, we say, “The number of puzzled people is large,” and “A large number of people are puzzled.” But put the two together and pay close attention to their grammar, and it seems as if one of them must be wrong. What’s more, only four of the 11 sentences were correct, whereas most yes/no quizzes are closer to half and half.
L. Schreiber, of Iowa City, Iowa, writes: “Every day I hear or read people using the phrase ‘That said, ...’ Am I the only one to find this phrase annoying? What happened to ‘however’ and ‘nevertheless,’ which seem less egotistical?”
Sandra Wilson, of Portland, Ore., writes: “I have a master of science degree. When I want to shorten that by dropping ‘of science,’ should it be ‘master’s degree’ or ‘masters degree’?”
Dear Sandra: I wish more people were as wary as you are of reckless behavior with apostrophes. Apostrophes seem to turn up where they aren’t wanted much more often than necessary ones are left out. That said (just kidding!), you need an apostrophe in “master’s.” There’s only one of you -- so, obviously “master” isn’t plural. And you hold, or possess, the degree. Therefore, the word is a singular possessive: “master’s degree.”
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.