Making Proper Names Plural but Not Possessive (Even the Difficult Ones that End in “S”)

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  • Nancy Tuten

    19 December 2016

    Making Proper Names Plural but Not Possessive (Even the Difficult Ones that End in “S”)

    If we really stop to think about it, most of us know that apostrophes make words possessive, not plural.

    But when we get in a hurry, it’s easy to make the mistake of using an apostrophe when we don’t need one or putting one in the wrong place.

    In a separate article, we address more specifically the issue of appropriately using apostrophes to make words possessive, especially when those words end with “s” or another similar sound.


    Here our focus is on making words plural—and on not using an apostrophe to do so.

    Of the seven examples below, which ones are correct if the writer is sending greetings from the entire family?

    1. Happy holidays from the Smith’s
    2. Happy holidays from the Williams’
    3. Happy holidays from the Smiths
    4. Happy holidays from the Williamses
    5. Happy holidays from the Smiths’
    6. Happy holidays from the Williamses’
    7. Happy holidays from the Williams family.

    If you chose 3, 4, and 7, you can probably stop reading now. You’ve got this. But if not, read on.

    Examples 1 and 2 are problematic for two reasons:

    Plural Is Not the Same As Possessive

    First, the apostrophe makes the names possessive, and when we send greetings, they are from us, not from something we own. The names Smith and Williams would need to be in the possessive case only if the greeting were from Jane Smith’s hamster or John Williams’s goldfish. (Yes, reputable style guides consistently advocate the use of the additional s after the apostrophe for most singular words in the possessive case—even those that end in s. We address this issue more fully in another post.)

    Singular Is Not the Same As Plural

    Second, examples 1 and 2 are wrong because the names are singular possessive. Since the writer intends for the greetings to come from all of his or her family members, the name needs to be plural (and, as we have already noted, not possessive):

    Singular names: Smith, Williams
    Singular possessive names: Smith’s, Williams’s
    Plural but not possessive names: Smiths, Williamses

    Examples 3 and 4 are correct because in both cases the words are plural but not possessive. The name Smith becomes plural when we add an s to make Smiths.

    Names That End in “S” (or Another Sibilant) Are Especially Tough

    The name Williams is a little tougher because it ends with an s. Names (and all other nouns, for that matter) that end in sibilants—the sounds s, sh, ch, z, or x—are made plural by the addition of es. Thus the name Williams in its plural form is Williamses. (Elsewhere we have posted a thorough discussion on the issue of making words plural when they end in sibilants.)

    Here are some other correct examples of names that end in sibilants and are thus made plural by adding es:

    • Happy holidays from the Bushes (plural form of the name Bush)
    • Happy holidays from the Birches (plural form of the name Birch)
    • Happy holidays from the Joneses (plural form of the name Jones)
    • Happy holidays from the Foxes (plural form of the name Fox)

    The following names do not end in sibilants and are thus made plural simply by adding s:

    • Happy holidays from the Benjamins (plural form of the name Benjamin)
    • Happy holidays from the Kirks (plural form of the name Kirk)
    • Happy holidays from the Moores (plural form of the name Moore)
    • Happy holidays from the Berrys (plural form of the name Berry—notice that we do not drop the y and add ies to proper names)

    Sentence 7 above skirts the issue, of course, by making the family name a modifier: “the Williams family.” In this case, the name should be neither plural nor possessive.

    TEST YOURSELF

    How would each of the following names be made plural but not possessive?

    1. Knox
    2. Hill
    3. Thomas
    4. Donges
    5. Sawyer
    6. Lewis
    7. Riley
    8. Sanchez

    ANSWERS

    1. Knoxes
    2. Hills
    3. Thomases
    4. Dongeses
    5. Sawyers
    6. Lewises
    7. Rileys
    8. Sanchezes

    Copyright 1999 Get It Write, rev. 2019

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