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March 18th, 2009

Apostrophes with plurals / loose and lose

by Barbara Wallraff

Leslie Moore, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “A common practice that is driving me crazy is inserting an apostrophe when making a word plural. There’s an ad on TV for a new food show called ‘Road-Tasted with the Neely’s.’ The Neely’s what? A lot of people must have seen that before it went to air, and none of them caught it. Are we losing this battle?”

Dear Leslie: Don’t give up yet! All the language authorities are still on our side. (In fact, even the Food Network, which airs “Road-Tasted,” is on our side: It spells the name “Neelys.” Your objection must have to do with something that originated with a local station.)

Nonetheless, you’re right that the mistaken use of apostrophes in plurals is common. It seems to be especially common with names. Maybe what trips people up is that most ordinary nouns ending in “y” change to “ie” when they become plural -- for instance, “party,” “parties” and “candy,” “candies.” But we don’t change letters within a name, so it’s “Kennedy,” “Kennedys” and “Neely,” “Neelys.” That quirk might leave some people feeling as if “Neelys” can’t be right.

I’ve heard it argued that “the Neely’s” would be fine on a sign identifying the family home of the Neelys, because the apostrophe makes the name possessive, and the family possesses the house. Well, but ... “the Neelys” necessarily refers to more than one Neely. To turn the plural into a possessive, you’d have to put the apostrophe after the “s”: “The Neelys’.” House signs are never punctuated like that, even though it’s the only possible correct version containing an apostrophe.

Jane Thomas, of Northville, Mich., writes: “I see the word ‘loose’ written to mean ‘lose’ almost everywhere these days. It’s irritating because the words have totally different meanings. I think it’s good to maintain a lexicon that can distinguish different ideas rather than having a few words stand for many meanings. However, it may be that with so many people employing this usage, the misspelling ‘loose’ will turn into a word that means ‘lose.’ What do you think?”

Dear Jane: I see that mistake too, and I wonder about it. Doesn’t it make more sense if “loose” rhymes with “goose,” “noose” and “caboose”? And “lose” rhymes with ... well, come to think of it, the word rhymes with “booze,” “cues,” “ewes,” “moos,” “news,” “use” and “views,” just to give examples that are all spelled differently. That may be one reason people have trouble remembering how to spell “lose.”

Then, too, although “loose” is usually an adjective, it also can be a verb, and then the difference between it and “lose” isn’t so great after all. The verb “loose” means to release or relax, as in “Don’t loose your hold on the leash or the dog might run away.” And of course, one meaning of “lose” is to fail to keep, as in “Don’t lose your grip on the leash or the dog might run away.” So there’s another potential reason for confusion.
Jane, I agree with you that it’s worthwhile to try to maintain a distinction between the two words. Fortunately, this is another battle I don’t believe we’re -- ahem -- losing yet.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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