As the holiday season approaches each year and people gear up to send holiday greeting cards, we need a reminder about how to make last names plural. (Hint: Doing so does NOT involve an apostrophe.)
If we stop to think about it, most of us will remember that apostrophes make words possessive, not plural. But when we are tired or pressed for time, it’s easy to include an apostrophe where we don’t need one.
So without further ado, here is Get It Write’s refresher guide to making names plural, advice that will come in handy whether you’re signing cards or letters or personalizing mailboxes or welcome mats.
Let’s See What You Already Know
Of the seven examples below, which ones are correct if the writer is sending greetings from more than one person with the same last name?
- Happy holidays from the Smith’s
- Happy holidays from the Williams’
- Happy holidays from the Smiths
- Happy holidays from the Williamses
- Happy holidays from the Smiths’
- Happy holidays from the Williamses’
- 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, apostrophes make the names possessive, but when we send greetings, they are from us, not from something we own. We need no apostrophe in such cases, then, because there is no possession involved.
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, the majority of style manuals advocate the use of the additional s after the apostrophe for most singular nouns in the possessive case—even names 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 rendered as singular possessives. Since the writer intends the greetings to come from all family members, the name must 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
Plural and possessive names: Smiths’, Williamses’
Examples 3 and 4 are correct because in both cases the words are plural but not possessive: the Smiths, the Williamses.
Making Last Names Plural When They End in s (or ch, sh, x, or z)
As shown above, the name Smith becomes plural simply by adding an s to make Smiths.
Pluralizing the name Williams, however, is more challenging because it ends with s in its singular form. Names (and all other nouns, for that matter) that end in sibilants (that is, the sounds s, sh, ch, z, and x) are made plural by the addition of es.
Thus the name Williams in its plural form is Williamses.
Here are more examples of names that end in sibilants and are thus made plural by adding es:
- Happy holidays from the Joneses (plural form of the name Jones)
- Happy holidays from the Spearses (plural form of the name Spears)
- Happy holidays from the Birches (plural form of the name Birch)
- Happy holidays from the Bushes (plural form of the name Bush)
- Happy holidays from the Foxes (plural form of the name Fox)
- Happy holidays from the Gomezes (plural form of the name Gomez)
It’s Easy to Make Last Names Plural When They Do Not End in Sibilants
The following names do not end in sibilants and are thus made plural simply by adding s (but not an apostrophe!):
- 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 to make them plural as we do with common nouns)
Sometimes we skirt the issue entirely (as with sentence 7 in our opening examples) by making the family name modify the noun family, as in “the Williams family.” In such cases, the name should be neither plural nor possessive.
The mistake of using apostrophes to make last names plural is so common that it has been widely addressed by such prominent publications as Southern Living, HuffPost, and Business Insider. If you think this Get It Write explanation is clear and useful, please help improve this article’s ranking in online searches by sharing the link on social media and elsewhere. Thank you!
(We have also addressed the more complicated issue of appropriately using apostrophes to make words possessive, including those that end with s.)
How would each of the following names be made plural but not possessive?
©1999 Get It Write, rev. 2021