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Washing up on Isle of Wight beaches – and indeed much of the south coast – have been a few bedraggled Portuguese man o’ war. They caused a bit of a flurry of interest as for once, these things actually could hurt someone, and so need to be treated with care. A couple of (more or less) live ones were rescued and sent to Fort Victoria Marine Aquarium, where they’ve been a big hit with the public.
But there’s a problem, which I came across whilst writing the press release warning people of the animals. It’s even more taxing than the question of the best treatment for man o’ war stings. What is the correct plural term for Portuguese man o’ war? A bit of work with Google sheds little light. In fact, there is not even agreement as to how the singular is written and punctuated. Options include:
- Portuguese Man o’ War
- Portuguese Man-o’-War
- Portuguese Man-O’-War
- Portuguese man o’ war
- Portuguese man-o-war
- Portuguese Man-of-War
- Portuguese man-of-war
- …and many more variations
Clearly this is not too much of an issue, as they would all be spoken the same. With such a rarely-used name it’s probably easiest to simply say that this is a bit of our language that has not been codified – none of the options are wrong, and it’s unlikely that any common usage is going to be agreed, as one’s hardly needed. But when it comes to plurals, as well as all the above variations, there are even more. It seems that this is a question which can’t be answered: there is no agreed plural, so you’ll have to chose one you are comfortable with and stick to it. The Ranger, along with the Telegraph, has chosen, in a fairly arbitrary way, to use the singular as the plural – rather like sheep and deer. So, “One Portuguese man o’ war was washed up at Sandown, but two Portuguese man o’ war were washed up in Ventnor”. This convention is attractive because of its simplicity. It avoids the hyphenation and apostrophe issues by bypassing them – whatever your preference for the punctuation, you can use it in both the plural and singular. However, in a similar way there are a couple of options to consider.
These are quite different and would be said differently, too. Neither seem to sound natural to The Ranger’s ears. Unlike the punctuation it would probably be beneficial to know which plural was correct. So, whilst our language is not a democratic institution so much as an utterly unregulated free market, I invite you to cast your votes for what we can recommend as the official plural for Portuguese man o’ war. And if you want to pass judgement on the right punctuation too, feel free…