Friday, December 30, 2005

Funky plurals

When does a singular possessive not become a plural, even though you are talking about more than one? When that possessive form actually is an attributive. From the CSJ files:

Under the program, insurers must immediately report the names of drivers who have canceled policies. Drivers have a 20-day window to get new insurance before fines are imposed, and their vehicle registrations and drivers' licenses are suspended.

"Suspending registrations didn't get a lot of people's attention," Kitzman said. "Suspending drivers' licenses gave it more teeth."

That first graf has multiple problems, but let's focus first on one common to both grafs: drivers' licenses.

The normal singular is driver's license. When two or more people have them, they don't have drivers' licenses, but driver's licenses. In this case, driver's is the attributive as part of the noun form and does not get pluralized.

In the first graf, it might seem the problem is easily solved by deleting drivers' since Drivers leads the sentence. That works if you flip the structure to put license before vehicle. Otherwise, it becomes a bit muddied as to whether license refers to the driver or the vehicle (which in most states is redundant because a registration is a vehicle license).

In the quote, some judgment is involved. Is he saying suspending the the driver's licenses themselves, or is he saying suspending the licenses of drivers. In the former, driver's licenses is correct. In the latter, "licenses" would be the sole noun and drivers' would be correct. However, for consistency and common usage, unless it were truly clear he meant the latter, I would stick with driver's licenses.

Now, back to the first graf, following John Russial's "two-error" rule -- if you find one, you're likely to find at least one more:
  • Ditch a 20-day window, an overwrought way of saying 20 days.
  • That comma is out of place. Before acts on both sides of the conjuction -- before the fines and the suspensions.
Under the program, insurers must immediately report the names of drivers who have canceled policies. Drivers have 20 days to get new insurance before fines are imposed and their licenses and vehicle registrations are suspended.


At 1/28/06, 10:12 PM, Blogger motorcop said...

Actually the normal singular is DRIVER LICENSE. For some unknown reason, most people, and the Los Angeles Times, insist on using "driver's" license.

You Californians (and most other states) take a look at your license and note what it says. Chances are it says DRIVER LICENSE.

One would only use driver's license when referring to it in the possessive. (e.g., "Take that driver's license away!")

At 1/29/06, 12:03 AM, Blogger Doug said...

On an abstract level, driver license makes sense. But in South Carolina, for instance, mine says driver's license. That is the generally accepted way it is used among a wide variety of publications. When there is divergence, as there is here, a style decision must be made, and the generally used style is driver's. As a matter of fact, the genitive can be used to signify more than possession. See, for instance, this from Copy Editor newsletter.


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