Really tricky plurals

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Have you seen that car commercial where the salesman opens the trunk of the car and there’s a whole happy little world in it?  The one where the guy wanting to purchase the car opens with a line something like, “Those are big MPGs.” It drives me nuts.

The problem is MPGs.   MPG stands for miles per gallon, as you probably already know.  The problem is that the words MPG stands for are already plural, and writing, or worse, as in this case, saying MPGs is not only superfluous plurality, but also just plain wrong.  And the abbreviation is pluralized incorrectly all over the internet.

It doesn’t sound plural when you say MPG, and it doesn’t look plural when you write MPG.  But guess what?  It doesn’t matter how it sounds or looks.  The abbreviation is plural, and that doesn’t change because some ad-writer somewhere thought it sounded funny.

This happens with other unusual-sounding plurals, too.  I’ve discussed in previous columns that the plural of hyphenated nouns such as sister-in-law or bride-to-be have to be pluralized with care (sisters-in-law and brides-to-be).

The trick with MPG, however, is that you have to think carefully about what the abbreviation stands for.   Even if you remember that M stands for miles (plural), you almost certainly wouldn’t say “miles per gallons.”  But that’s what MPGs actually says.

Even trickier still are abbreviations for which few people know the original words.  Take, for example, JPEG.  Most people know that photos sent electronically can be sent in JPEG format, and many people refer to such electronic images as JPEGs.  Do you know what JPEG stands for, though?  Joint Photographic Experts Group.  So are the images really JPEGs?  Not exactly.  They are JPEG images or images in JPEG format.  Still, JPEG is often the name used for such images.  So what do you do?

There’s no clear-cut solution for the JPEG problem and many others like it.  But here’s what you can do: think about the words an abbreviation replaces before you pluralize or otherwise adjust it.  If you don’t know what the abbreviation means, look it up.  Then do the best you can to be as correct as possible.

That should make your grammatical world a little more like the utopia in that trunk.  And you don’t even have to buy the car to get it.


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