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Put the Ticket(s) in the Envelope(s)

Erik, a technical writer, wrote to me with a problem involving awkward writing.

"I am hoping you can give me feedback on something I run across frequently in my job at a bank. Many of our procedures and forms use what I call 'parenthetical plurals'; for example, 'Place the ticket(s) in the basket.' When these parenthetical plurals become the subjects of sentences, things get awkward.
"My instinct is to make these all plural, or to reword the sentence so that the parenthetical plural is not the subject. Do you have any advice you can offer me on dealing with these plurals?
"Also, I have tried to search online for tips on this, but I don't even know what these 'parenthetical plurals' are actually called. Is there a more agreed-upon name for these?"

Erik's phrase "parenthetical plurals" is a fine name for the plurals he describes. The Gregg Reference Manual calls them "plural endings in parentheses." Erik's label is more concise.

I applaud Erik's instinct to eliminate parenthetical plurals. They look funny, and they can make subject-verb agreement a guessing game in sentences.

Yet on forms, parenthetical plurals may be the simplest way to indicate that the information required may be singular or plural.

Let's look at examples I found in documents on my computer. 

These appeared on an application form for conference speakers:

Presenter Name(s)
Presenter Title(s)
Target Audience(s)

To me, the parenthetical plurals work well. They offer a crisp shorthand way of indicating that there may be one or more presenters and audiences.

The same application form includes a space for "Presenter's Biography." The writer chose wisely to avoid the clumsy "Presenter's (s') Biography (ies)." But in keeping with the parenthetical plurals, the best choice would be this:

 Presenter Bio(s)

In examples like these, the parentheses just clutter the sentence, and Erik would be smart to eliminate them, keeping the nouns plural:

Which aspect(s) did you find most effective?

In what way(s) could this course be improved?

Indicate which individual(s) have the authority to negotiate and approve any final contract.

The company may use subcontractor(s).

If there have been major changes in your family circumstances, briefly describe the change(s), the effects on your lifestyle, and how each family member has reacted.

Date(s): September 7-8, 2009

The use of parentheses in the sentence below may make sense, but I wonder why the writer does not know how many databases the client has. If the distinction doesn't matter, "databases" would serve. 

It is possible that this change will be picked up in our next update of their database(s).

In this example, the parenthetical plurals can be cut. The singular form is acceptable with any:

List the name(s) and year(s) in school of any of your children attending the same high school.

In PowerPoint slides for my business writing classes, I regularly use this sentence in instructions:

Review your checklist with your partner(s).

If I remove that parenthetical plural, some people in a class will point out that it doesn't match their situation. For example, if I use partners, they will say, "But I have just one partner." The same kind of thing will happen if I keep the singular form, partner. So I am going to keep those parentheses.

I could not find examples of what troubled Erik most, parenthetical plurals as subjects, so I made up these:

Your contribution(s) pays for programs throughout the county.

Any contractor(s) undergo a complete security screening.

You can see how inelegant the verb choices are. "Contribution pays" or "Contributions pay"? "Contractor undergoes" or "Contractors undergo"? Usually we ignore information in parentheses when choosing a verb, but that's a bad solution if it makes the reader stumble.

I would choose one noun, singular or plural, that suits the sentence:

Your contributions pay for programs throughout the county. (This sentence may encourage the reader to contribute more than once.)

Every contractor undergoes a complete security screening. (Every emphasizes the completeness of the screening process rather than focusing on the number of contractors.)

Do parenthetical plurals fill your company's documents? Do you strive to eliminate them, as Erik does?

Syntax Training




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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Put the Ticket(s) in the Envelope(s)”

  • I think you have rather gracefully identified the problem with parenthetical plurals (and, yes, I like the more concise term as well).

    Unfortunately, when one writes in a technical sense, one often has to deal with multiple case problems and while the parenthetical plurals are a “kludgy” way of dealing with the multiple case, they do often eliminate repetitive and (mostly unnecessay) phrases, thus creating a more concise and direct writing.

  • Lynn, I thought I remembered an example you gave on this once where you rewrote the sentence; e.g., “Tickets should be placed in the basket.” Then you could also write “Partners should review checklists together.”

    I’m always in favor of streamlining!

  • To be honest I have never put to much attention to this “plural endings in parentheses.” anyway after I read this article definetely I will look for have a better writing and understanding of what I’m writing or reading.

  • Hi, Mickey. Thanks for your helpful reminder that parenthetical plurals can be more concise than alternatives. In case other readers need an example, let me give one:

    “Presenter(s)” is shorter than “Presenter or Presenters” and “Presenter/Presenters.”

    Hi, Val. It’s flattering that you are recalling other things I suggested. Thank you!

    Unfortunately, “Partners should review checklists together” isn’t engaging enough for instructions in a class. I need the “you” form with its directness. But there are situations where the approach you mention would work well.

    Thanks for commenting.


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