With quite a few big holidays looming, many people are gearing up to send holiday greeting cards, so this is the perfect time to remind everyone how to make last names plural. (Hint: doing so does NOT involve an apostrophe.)
If we 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.
Here’s how to make names plural when we sign holiday greeting cards or letters and in other situations that require plural names, such as when we personalize mailboxes and 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, 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, the majority of style manuals 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 the 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.
Making Last Names Plural When They End in s (or sh, ch, z, or x)
The name Williams is tougher because it ends with s. Names (and all other nouns, for that matter) that end in sibilants (that is, 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.
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)
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)
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.
The mistake of using an apostrophe to make last names plural is so common that it has been widely addressed by such prominent publications as Southern Living, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. If you think this Get It Write explanation is clear and helpful, please help improve our ranking in organic 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?
Copyright 1999 Get It Write, rev. 2019