Ten Rules for Writing Plurals

The plural forms of English words can sometimes be fraught with confusion. It’s a mystery to me how non-native speakers cope with them. The standard rule is that to make a word plural, you add s or es. You use the verb form is with singular words (describing one thing) and are for plural. But there are so many exceptions to these rules that they are now almost redundant. What’s more, some rules have changed completely. Words that once took a plural are now deemed to be singular and vice versa.

Here are 10 rules to help you navigate the maze of plurals. We’ll start with a basic one.

  1. Some words take an s or es plural at the end, but to make them easier to pronounce, the spelling of other letters in the words changes. The letter f changes to v, so wife becomes wives and hoof becomes hooves. For words ending in y, the y changes to ie, and then you add the s at the end, so canary becomes canaries.
  2. There are some words that were once treated as singular words. These describe organisations that have a lot of people in them, but are considered to be one entity. As a result, you would use the singular is verb with them rather than the plural are. Examples include the government is, the team is or the company is. Officially, these should still be treated as singular, but the use of the plural is now acceptable, because it’s used in spoken English, and it’s less ambiguous. So it’s now correct to say, “the government are” or “the team are.”
  3. Similarly, there are words that once took the plural verb are, but are now treated as singular. Media is a word of Latin origin, which describes multiple mediums of communication, but we now say “the media is.” Again, this comes from spoken English, and people are more likely to know what you mean when you say that rather than “the media are.” The word data now follows a similar pattern.
  4. For most words ending in o, you simply add an s to the end of them. You can speak of hippos and trios. The exception is when you’re describing multiple fruit and vegetables, for which you add es. That’s why you write tomatoes and potatoes.
  5. Just to make things a little weirder, there are words ending in s which aren’t plural forms, but you could be forgiven for thinking they were. Grits is the name of an American breakfast dish. It does not mean more than one grit. And have you ever heard of just one shenanigan? Such a thing may well exist, but the word is almost always spelt shenanigans.
  6. It can be hard to know what to do with compound words, words that combine two or more small words. Should you pluralise the first part of the word or the second? Most of the time, it’s the first word that you pluralise, so it’s mothers in law, not mother in laws.
  7. There are a lot of Latin origins words that survive in English and typically end in um or a. Traditionally, for the plural form, you change the a to ae and the um to a. Officially, you still write stadia and formulae. But now it’s acceptable, and even preferred, to write stadiums and formulas.
  8. Words describing quantities are kept as singular, because even if they are describing large numbers of objects, there is only one quantity. So you would write, the amount is enormous.
  9. For some words, you get to keep it simple, and the plural is the same as the singular. Common examples are fruit, sheep and fish.
  10. It can be very hard to know what to do when combining apostrophes with plurals. I could write a whole blog post on that. It’s usually s with an apostrophe and no second s after the apostrophe. For decades, you just add an s with no apostrophe, so it’s 1970s, not 1970’s.

What unusual plural forms have you come across? What plural forms tend to cause you the most confusion? Share them here and we’ll get to the bottom of the mystery together.

Three Hard Truths About Promoting Your Writing

I write this blog to tell you about my writing projects, for myself and other people, and also to help you with your writing. And I’m doing it (says she, blushing slightly) to promote myself. As a result, I try to present myself and my work as positively as possible, adding a glossy sheen to my writing. This week, I’m dropping the gloss and I’m going to talk about how hard promotion can be.

People who know me know that I’m honest and frank, possibly a bit too much so for my own good. So I’m not going to hide the fact that like many writerly types, I find it hard to promote myself. It feels like boasting. But there are things I have learned about promoting yourself which are hard, but which give me the motivation I need to start spreading the word.

Here are my hard-won truths about self-promotion. I

You Have to Tell People

First of all, you have to let people know that you exist. Nobody is going to come and pluck your brilliant book out of your bedroom door or your hard-drive. Nobody’s going to ask you to come and speak on a panel. Nobody is going to avail of your business-boosting copywriting service. You need to let people know what you have to offer them. The good news is, that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to trumpet blast them with a showy sales pitch. You’re just telling them the story of what you do. The upside of promotion is that you get a chance to share your passion, and that passion will make people sit up and listen.

You don’t need to trumpet blast about your writing.

Nobody Owes You Their Custom

This was a harsh but useful lesson for me to learn. I used to fret about the fact that people weren’t buying my book, weren’t turning up at my writing workshops, weren’t following through on requests for me to do editing or copywriting work for them. Then I realised that they weren’t under any obligation whatsoever to do any of these things. Instead, it’s up to me to show them how I can be useful to them, and to show an interest in their own projects and personal goals. This is what will get them to pick up the phone, to come through the doors, to open up that book.

Keep Telling Them

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that once you’ve announced your latest book/workshop/event, all you now have to do is sit back and watch the sales roll in. But people are being bombarded with information from every corner. To make sure your information cuts through the babble, you need to tell them over and over again about your offer, using various different mediums.

These truths may be obvious to some of you, but I’ve found that reminding myself of them gives me a sense of perspective, and when I follow through on them and do the promotion, I reap the rewards with plenty of interesting work. What are your tough promotional lessons?

Making a Living As a Writer

As I’m a little short of time, this week’s blog will reproduce an interview with author Donal Ryan that appeared in the latest edition of The Sunday Independent. The article was written by Niamh Horan, and Donal Ryan explains the reason why he returned to his job as a civil servant, despite writing three award-winning, successful books. To me, this article raises this question. Does a writer have a right to expect to make a living from writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here it is.

He is loved by his readers, lauded by critics and is an award-winning author – but Donal Ryan has to return to his day job in the civil service so he can pay the mortgage.

“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer,” he told the Sunday Independent this weekend, “You need to have something else on the go.”

Ryan, who is returning to his full-time role in the Workplace Relations Commission, says romanticised notions of millionaire best-selling novelists aren’t grounded in reality.

“You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get too stressed out. It just isn’t worth it. I have two kids in school and I have a mortgage to pay,” he said.

“I am lucky though. I loved the civil service. It was a job that I was good at and that I found fulfilling and challenging and I had an opportunity to help people and to make a little difference in the world.”

Outlining the numbers that go into achieving a best-selling status, he explains: “If you look at the charts every week, in the autumn you need to sell around 1,000 books to be No.1. At the moment I suppose about 500 books would do it or 300 even – it depends on the time of year.

“I reckon I get about 40c per book. So I would need to sell a huge amount of books to make a good salary out of that.”

But he says he is lucky to have the support of big publishers: “I can’t complain. My publishers are fantastic.

“I have just signed a contract for three more books and my advances are really good but, still, I have to look at the long term and the fact that I have 20 more years of a mortgage, so you would need to sell a lot to earn a living from that alone.”

From Nenagh, Co Tipperary, Donal worked as a civil servant with the Department of Enterprise for years before his debut novel The Spinning Heart was published in 2011. He then became a writer in residence at the University of Limerick. He has just published his third novel All We Shall Know about a married woman who becomes pregnant after an affair with a 17-year-old Traveller.

 The 40-year-old lives in Castletroy with his wife Anne-Marie and their children, Thomas (8) and Lucy (6) and says he is grateful for his gift because it saved his family from tougher times.

“When I got my first publishing deal, I was completely and utterly broke. I literally hadn’t a penny.

“People working in the civil service were told we were on ‘the pig’s back’ and that we supposedly had big salaries and parachute pensions. We were blamed for the crash and told the only way to get out of it was to crucify us.

“But to lose a quarter of your household income at the stroke of a pen was a pretty serious thing. All of a sudden we hadn’t got enough money to pay for the messages. I literally could not pay the mortgage,” he says.

“At the end of every month the outgoings as a family were more than what we were earning – there was no break from it, there was no end in sight. But then that spurred me on.

“I started writing at the time and I said to myself, ‘I have to make this sellable’, I have to create something that will make a bit of money’.

“I wrote The Spinning Heart in that frame of mind. From the point of view of a person who was broke, and I knew if I could get that advance, we would be out of that hole of debt. To be honest – being a writer literally saved me.” Ryan – who received 47 rejections before finding a publisher – gives inspiration to young writers and explains that it was his self-belief that made him persevere.

“I remember getting one rejection from a major publishing house that was on a big A4 sheet of paper and all it said was ‘sorry not for us’ so I knew they hadn’t even read it.

“I got another note from an agent, who told me: ‘I’ll take on three novels next year and they’ll all be of a higher standard than this’. I just thought, ‘he’s wrong, he’s wrong about this. I had a real serious belief in the novel The Thing About December and I still do.

”That novel for me just felt alright. And I knew in my heart that eventually it would work out and if I kept plugging away that eventually somebody would sit down and read it.

“There’s often terrible advice given to young writers, starting off that they have to be selective with who they send their book to, but I think you should try absolutely everybody.”

He also tells aspiring novelists that if they want to start then they need to get over their fear and put pen to paper. “The thing is it [success] came at the end of 10 years of trying to write and failing, but that’s what you have to do. You have to practice writing. People think, ‘I am good at it, I can just sit down and do it’ but you can’t. You have to fail and fail and fail and fail again before it starts to turn around.” He describes writer’s block as “a feeling of sickness” that is so overt “you could puke” but he says once the magic comes together, “it gives you an immense feeling of pleasure. Nothing could ever compare to it”.


Donal will be in conversation on February 26 with Cecelia Ahern at the Limerick Literary Festival and with Anne Enright at the Ennis Book Club Festival on March 3.