Pesky Plurals and Possessives
I’ve always enjoyed the spirit of the holiday season. I love being with family, seeing festive decorations, listening to Christmas music (only when seasonally appropriate), and eating good food. With all the excitement of the holidays comes a sense of dread because I know what it also means: holiday greeting cards. The world will be inundated with greetings from The Johnson’s or The Changs’ or The Gonzales’s.
I’m not sure when this idea that adding an apostrophe makes a name plural started, but it often trips people up. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t only a greeting card phenomenon. It pops up in daily life all the time, but it seems to come out in full force during the holidays
In reality, an apostrophe (‘) is mainly used for two things:
Contractions — indicating that something is left out of a word (is not = isn’t, could have = could’ve)
Possessives — indicating that something belongs to someone or something else (the cat’s nose, the FBI’s investigation)
An apostrophe is not typically used to make nouns plural.
Regular plural nouns are nouns that can be made plural by simply adding an -s or -es to the end of the word. If a word ends with an s, x, z, sh, or ch, it usually becomes plural by adding -es. Some examples include:
More than one mother = mothers
More than one computer = computers
More than one wish = wishes
More than one fox = foxes
More than one agency = agencies (the y is replaced by ie, then the s is added)
Irregular plural nouns don’t follow this rule to become plural. Instead, they become plural in a variety of ways.
Some nouns change endings.
More than one child = children
More than one addendum = addenda
More than one syllabus = syllabi
Some nouns change forms completely.
More than one woman = women
More than one tooth = teeth
Some nouns stay the same.
More than one sheep = sheep
More than one deer = deer
English is riddled with exceptions to the rules. It often comes down to memorization of how to pluralize irregular nouns.
A note on initialisms/acronyms and numbers:
It is commonly seen that pluralizing an initialism/acronym or number involves adding -’s to the end of something. This is incorrect.
More than one ATM = ATMs (not ATM’s)
More than one UFO = UFOs (not UFO’s)
The 1980s, not the 1980’s
A possessive, as its name implies, indicates possession or ownership. Most commonly, -’s is added to the end of the word to make it possessive, even if the singular form of the word already ends in an s.
The tires on the car are the car’s tires.
The broom belonging to the witch is the witch’s broom.
The hope of humanity is humanity’s hope.
The spores of the fungus are the fungus’s spores.
Possessive pronouns are different and do not use apostrophes to indicate possession. Instead, their possessive forms are inherent in the words themselves.
If she owns it, it’s hers. That’s her candy.
If he owns it, it’s his. That’s his candy.
If they own it, it’s theirs. That’s their candy.
If you own it, it’s yours. That’s your candy.
If I own it, it’s mine. That’s my candy, and you better not touch it.
Making a word both plural and possessive can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
With regular plural nouns, add an apostrophe to the end of the word (after the -s or -es) to indicate possession. With irregular plural nouns, add -’s to the end because it’s already plural.
A nest belonging to one bird is the bird’s nest. A nest belonging to several birds is the birds’ nest. Birds is a regular plural noun, so you pluralize it by adding -s, then add an apostrophe at the end to make it possessive.
A toy belonging to the child is the child’s toy. Toys belonging to more than one child are the children’s toys. Children is an irregular plural noun, so you add -’s to make it possessive. You would not write childrens’ because there is no such word as childrens, and the word children is already plural.
A donation made by an alumnus is an alumnus’s donation. Donations made by more than one alumnus are the alumni’s donations. Alumni is already plural, so you would simply add -’s to make it possessive.
Back to Those Greeting Cards
The key to making sure you get the plurals and possessives correct for proper nouns is to take it one step at a time by asking the right questions. Let’s say you’re invited to a party by Jane Smith.
Who are you referring to? Jane Smith, who is one person. A singular noun will do.
Whose party are you going to? The party of Jane Smith. Now you need a singular possessive. Since Jane’s last name is Smith, you can simply add an -’s to make it possessive. Therefore, it is Jane Smith’s party.
Who is the invitation from? Jane Smith and her two children. Since there is more than one Smith, a plural is needed. Therefore, the invitation is from the Smiths.
Whose house will it be at? Since there are multiple people living in the house, a plural is needed (Smiths). Because the house belongs to the Smiths, you also need a possessive. Therefore, this is the Smiths’ house.
Things get trickier when the last name ends with an s, x, z, sh, or ch. You can still follow the steps above to figure it out though. Now you’ve been invited to a party by Mary Williams.
Who are you referring to? Mary Williams. Singular.
Whose party are you going to? The party of Mary Williams. To make Williams possessive, you would still add -’s. Therefore, this is Mary Williams’s party.
Who is the invitation from? Mary and Peter Williams. Since there is more than one Williams, a plural is needed. Because Williams (singular) already ends with -s, we follow the rule of adding -es to make it plural. Therefore, the invitation is from the Williamses.
Whose house will it be at? We’ve established that Williamses is the plural of Williams. Because the house belongs to the Williamses (plural), we would add the apostrophe at the end. Therefore, this is the Williamses’ house.
When in doubt, you can play it safe by rewording. For example, you can sign your holiday greeting card with “Love, the Allen family” or “From Erin and Joy Byers.”
If plurals and possessives trip you up when you’re writing, take a second to pause whenever you’re tempted to add an apostrophe to a word. Ask yourself if the word is a contraction or a possessive. If not, more likely than not, the apostrophe doesn’t belong.