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When someone has more than one master’s degree, should these be described as have several masters’ degrees or several master’s degrees?

In other words, which of these two applies:

  • (singular) a master’s degree > (plural) several master’s degrees
  • (singular) a master’s degree > (plural) several masters’ degrees

Please note that this is a different question from "Is there an apostrophe in a master's degree?". That addresses the question for the singular. This question is about the plural case. There is definitely an apostrophe, but the question is where it should go.

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    That addresses the question for the singular. This question is about the plural case. There is definitely an apostrophe, but the question is where it should go. – Michael Hoffman Feb 27 '13 at 17:57
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    MA stands for Magister Artium 'Master of Arts'. It's the most common Masters degree in the US. There is also MS, MSLS, MSI, and many more specialized degrees, but since mostly people don't understand what they mean (respectively, 'Master of Science, Master of Science in Library Science, Master of Science in Information') or what their significance is, MA is a common general form; certainly it's easier to manage than Master's's. – John Lawler Feb 27 '13 at 18:51
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    I have six Masters' degrees. And five of them are suing me to get them back. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 27 '13 at 19:50
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    The correct answer can be inferred from a hypothetical parallel situation. Suppose there were such a thing as a “postman’s knock”. If you heard a postman’s knock repeated thrice over, you would still have heard three postman’s knocks, not three *postmen’s knocks. Thus the correct answer is that we do not change the possessive into a plural simply due to having pluralized the noun it applies to. They are separate things. In other words, three different MySpace accounts do not an OurSpace account make. :) – tchrist Mar 1 '13 at 0:16
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    You might find this post helpful: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/151541/… – Michael Rybkin Nov 17 '18 at 19:27
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Since the spelling of the plural of "Master's degree" appears to vary depending on what style guide you follow, I thought I would post an answer that goes into more detail on the possible linguistic bases of using a singular or a plural form.

The behavior of irregular genitives such as men's/man's or child's/children's appears to provide some support for using the plural form in these kind of circumstances.

The "classifying genitive": the grammatical construction involved

The word "master's" in "master's degree" seems to be what is called a "classifying genitive".

The "genitive" affix -s is most commonly attached to an entire noun phrase, forming a genitive phrase that acts as the determiner of the following noun. (The function of "determiner" can be carried out by words like the, my, his, her,: in a phrase like "my sister's gloves", the genitive phrase "my sister" is in the same "slot" that would be occupied by her in "her gloves" or "the" in "the gloves".)

"Classifying genitives" are a bit different. In a classifying genitive, the -s affix is attached to a noun, not an entire noun phrase, and the resulting genitive is used attributively. An example is old wives' in the phrase "an old wives' tale": since old wives' is plural, we know that the preceding article an doesn't go with it, and so the overall structure has to be something like "an [[old wives'] tale]".

The principles for pluralizing classifying genitives don't seem to be entirely straightforward. I found a 1993 article that has the following discussion:

for many speakers the natural plural corresponding to (The police have just found) a man's hat, in a non-specific sense, is not some man's hats but rather some men's hats. If PHM [Professor P.H. Matthews of Cambridge] is right, and the latter case is not a classifying genitive at all but simply a genitive phrase (in determiner position) with indefinite reference, we still have to explain why the plural form men's is used when it is far from certain that more than one man is involved, particularly if we consider a case like some men's gloves, which might well be a single pair, and presumably belong to one man.

(Allerton, p. 559)

Allerton goes on to say that

the combination of genitive singular with plural head noun seems to be generally unacceptable. Combinations like these child's swings or some man's coffins or two woman's handbags seem to be unnatural, despite the fact that each object may belong to only one person or even that all objects may belong to the same person. Why? RCLM [Dr. R.C.L. Matthews of Freiburg-im-Breisgau] suggests that a kind of 'number agreement' may be involved.

(p. 562)

But at the end, Allerton notes that it may be harder to determine the behavior of nouns with regular plurals, since there is no difference in pronunciation between the genitive singular and plural:

In this discussion we have concentrated on (animate) nouns with irregular plurals, because only these have an overt distinction between genitive singular (e.g. woman's) and plural (e.g. women's). Regular nouns have no such distinction in pronunciation, despite the difference in the spelling (boy's/boys', lady's, ladies', etc.), and the non-genitive plural is also identical (boys, ladies). This gives rise to a further area of indeterminacy, particularly when a combination shows signs of being lexicalized as a compound (which Bouscaren and Chuquet (1992: 116-19) wish to place in a separate category of 'strictly generic genitives', but only when they have stress on the first element). Our original example quoted from Quirk et al. was girl's school occurring as a rival to girls' school, with some writers turning in desperation to girls school

(pp. 566-567)

Allerton suggests that girls' school is "the natural form", while forms like girl's school and girls school are the product of "the desperation of millions of language-users educated with little training in grammar and even less in the use of the apostrophe" (p. 567). But these comments seem a bit opinionated to me.

Master's degree does in fact (obligatorily) have stress on the first element for me, so it would seem to be of the correct form to qualify as a "generic genitive" construction. (I will try to find more information about this.)

Some corpus data

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) shows 401 total - 9 spoken = 392 tokens of "master 's degrees," in contrast to 49 - 9 = 40 tokens of "masters degrees". Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any data about the spelling "masters' degrees".

The Google Ngram Viewer shows the following results for "masters degrees, master's degrees, masters' degrees":

"master's degree" the most frequent spelling; past 1970, it is followed by "masters degrees" and then "masters' degrees"

Regardless of the grammar of the construction, the spelling "master’s degrees" does not appear to be uncommon compared to the alternatives in English texts.

Works cited

DJ. Allerton (1993) Problems of modern English grammar III classifying genitives: Putting the apostrophe in its place findings, English Studies, 74:6, 559-568.

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I assume that Master's is in the possessive form because in the phrase "I have a Master's degree", it indicates that the degree is one possessed by a master. If that's the case, then the right form for plurality should be: "I have three Master's degrees", because in each case, there is only one master in possession of the degree: you're not talking about more than one master per degree, you're talking about more than one degree, each possessed by one Master.

  • Agreed. And it doesn’t matter that the two master’s degrees are held by the same person, as in this question. When John and Jane each have a single Master’s degree, it would still be correct to speak of “the Master’s degrees held by John and Jane” for the reason set out in this comment. – Adhemar Nov 18 '18 at 20:18
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The MA denotes a Master of Arts degree. You can say,"I have a Master's degree" for short. If you are clever enough to earn more than one, you can say you have two Master of Arts degrees, two MA's or two Master's Degrees. I only have one.

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    Just like the first one, earning more than one requires not cleverness but mere diligence. – tchrist Feb 28 '13 at 1:25
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The spelling of the plural of "Master's degree" appears to vary depending on what style guide you follow.

What style guides have to say

Johns Hopkins Bloomburg School of Public Health's style guide

Multiple master of arts (or master of science) degrees

Under no circumstances is the form "masters" (an "s" with no apostrophe) appropriate. Use the plural form as follows:

I have master of arts degrees in English and history.
I have masters' degrees in English and history.
The School offers masters' programs in public health, health science and health administration.


However, 1006a pointed out that a Chicago Manual of Style's online Q&A page for possessives and attributes suggests using the spelling "master’s degrees".

Q. Hello, I am copyediting an article and wish to know what the plural form of “master’s degree” is. I believe it should be “masters’ degrees,” as this would be most logical, but I would appreciate your input. All of the online forums I follow have different opinions regarding this matter, and no dictionaries provide a plural form, so I would like to clear up the matter with you. Thank you very much.

A. The “master’s” part of the phrase stays singular: master’s degrees.

Neither source seems to support their preference, nor explain making any distinction in meaning between "master’s degrees" and "masters’ degrees".

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I generally advise simply rephrasing the sentence to avoid the situation in which it could be questioned, and drop the "degrees" descriptor unless doing so would make the reference to master's unclear.

Having a sentence that doesn't even create the situation in which the question would even arise is particularly important for matters like fiction, where a question could potentially break up the intended pace of the text by creating a snag for the reader to trip over.

Master's appears to me, in this case, as an adjective (and not governed by pluralization) describing an implied degree, regardless of whether degree(s) is present such as with blue truck and blue trucks.

  • Welcome to English Language & Usage. Answers should be supported by facts, references, or specific expertise. Basically we depend on verifiability a lot like Wikipedia does. Can you most kindly edit your answer to supply supporting information. Thanks. – MetaEd Feb 27 '13 at 18:54
  • I already suggested rephrasing the original sentence but I am still curious about this question. – Michael Hoffman Feb 27 '13 at 19:27

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