Each year, as the festive season approaches and people make plans to send holiday greetings, many of us would benefit from a reminder about how to make last names plural. (Hint: Apostrophes need not apply.)
If we pause to think, we will likely remember that apostrophes make words possessive, not plural. But when we are tired or pressed for time, we might easily insert this mark of punctuation even when its placement is illogical.
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 illogical 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 apostrophes in such cases, then, because no possession is involved.
The names Smith and Williams would need to be in the possessive case only if the greetings were, say, from Jane Smith’s hamster or John Williams’s goldfish. (And 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—but not (as we have already noted) possessive.
Given that examples 5 and 6 are both plural and possessive, they, too, are wrong.
But examples 3 and 4, which are both plural but not possessive, are correct (as denoted below):
Singular names: Smith, Williams
Singular possessive names: Smith’s, Williams’s
Plural but not possessive names: Smiths, Williamses
Plural and possessive names: Smiths’, Williamses’
What about example 7, which is also correct? By modifying the noun family with our own family’s name—that is, by treating our family name like any other adjective that could modify the noun family (the happy family, the large family, the Smith family, the Williams family, etc.)—we can skirt the issues of plurality and possession entirely. We simply write our name in its usual (singular, non-possessive) form.
Making Last Names Plural When They End in s (or sh, ch, 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, x, and z) 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 Hankses (plural form of the name Hanks)
- Happy holidays from the Dongeses (plural form of the name Donges)
- 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 Usually 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 Romanos (plural form of the name Romano)
- 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)
IMPORTANT FINAL POINT: It’s the Sound, Not the Letter(s), That We Must Consider
Our friends over at editorsmanual.com point out that we must consider the sound of a letter and not just the appearance of certain letters or letter combinations. One example used on that site is the first name Zach, which ends in ch but is pronounced with a k sound. Thus, we make Zach plural simply by adding s: “David had three Zachs in his class.” The same rule applies to last names.
(We have also addressed the more complicated issue of appropriately using apostrophes to make words possessive, including those that end with s.)
Using apostrophes to make last names plural is such a common mistake 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!
How would each of the following names be made plural but not possessive?
- Koch (pronounced like Coke)
- Kochs (the ch sounds like a k)
©1999 Get It Write, rev. 2022.