Pet peeves, apostrophes, and plural family names

What's the difference between plural and possessive? When is it correct to use apostrophes when writing last names?

Pet Peeves

Do you have a pet peeve?

You know, those annoying little things that don’t seem to irritate anyone else, but drive you positively insane?

I actually found a site——that lists 500 pet peeves, including:

  1. People who whistle when they are happy.
  2. Greeting cards that throw sparkles, sequins or confetti on the hapless recipient.
  3. People [who] don’t use coasters.
  4. Keeping your Christmas lights up until February.
  5. People who dress their pets.
  6. Leaving the toilet seat up.
  7. Cracking your knuckles.
  8. Road maps that aren’t folded correctly.
  9. People who talk on their cell phone at the movies.
  10. Things sticking out of drawers.

I admit that the items on this short list draw different reactions from me. I think it’s silly to dress a pet, for example, but I wouldn’t call it a pet peeve. I can take or leave an incorrectly folded map. And I don’t mind happy whistling at all!

No, for something to qualify as a pet peeve, it has to drive me absolutely batty. Nuts. Fingernails-on-a-chalkboard crazy.

I have several—as do you (admit it). But let me introduce you to just one of them: the misplaced apostrophe.

The apostrophe has two uses: contraction and possession. Unfortunately, people are so totally confused that they’re always sticking random apostrophes where punctuation marks should fear to tread:

  1. In simple plurals, such as “No pet’s allowed” (should be “No pets allowed”)
  2. In family names when referring to the family as one unit, such as “The Wilson’s live there” (should be “The Wilsons live there”)

Do You Know the Johnson’s Johnsons?

One of these days I’ll write up a lesson on plurals vs. possessives. Today, let’s focus on family names.

Watch out when using apostrophes with last names! Grammar guides can differ on how to use apostrophes, but if you follow these rules, you’ll get it right.

One Person’s Last Name

To show possession of one person, add -’s.

Sarah Smith: Mitts is Sarah Smith’s dog.
Jared Jones: Heinz is Jared Jones’s dog.
Reid Roberts: Arrow is Reid Roberts’s dog.

Last names that end in -s can be tricky!

Right: Arrow is Reid Roberts’s dog.
Wrong: Arrow is Reid Robert’s dog.

Don’t use an apostrophe when you mean to make a plural.

Right: The Smiths also want a gerbil.
Wrong: The Smith’s also want a gerbil.

The Whole Family’s Last Name

To show possession of a whole family: First, add -es or -s to write the family’s last name in plural form. Then, add an apostrophe at the end to show possession.

Right: Pip belongs to the Joneses. Pip is the Joneses cat.
Wrong: Pip belongs to the Joneses. Pip is the Jones’s cat.

Right: Jet belongs to the Smiths. Jet is the Smiths cat.
Wrong: Jet belongs to the Smiths. Jet is the Smiths’s cat.

Using Last Names in Greetings and Invitations

People often get confused when sending greeting cards or invitations. Simply, when sending a greeting from the whole family, do not use apostrophes at all. If you’re just not sure, there are safe alternatives, such as “the Smith Family.”

Plural Example 1: Wes and Samantha Mann (add -s)

Right: Merry Christmas from the Manns
Right: Merry Christmas from the Mann Family
Right: Merry Christmas from Wes and Samantha Mann

Wrong: Merry Christmas from the Mann’s
Wrong: Merry Christmas from the Manns’

Plural Example 2: The Niles Family (add -es)

Right: Happy Anniversary from the Nileses
Right: Happy Anniversary from the Niles Family

Wrong: Happy Holidays from the Niles
Wrong: Happy Holidays from the Niles
Wrong: Happy Holidays from the Niles’s
Wrong: Happy Holidays from the Nile’s 

When sending an invitation, use an apostrophe to show possession of the location. You are inviting them to the family’s house, for example, so even if the word “house” isn’t present, it is implied.

Possessive Example 1: The Berry Family

Right: Graduation celebration at the Berrys
Right: Graduation celebration at the Berrys’ house
Right: Graduation celebration at the Berry home
Right: Graduation celebration at John and Tiffany’s house

Wrong: Graduation celebration at the Berry’s
Wrong: Graduation celebration at the Berry’s house
Wrong: Graduation celebration at the Berries
Wrong: Graduation celebration at the Berries’

Possessive Example 2: Aidan and Leah Davis

Right: Come for cake and ice cream at the Davises
Right: Come for cake and ice cream at the Davises’ house
Right: Come for cake and ice cream at the Davis home
Right: Come for a cake and ice cream at Aidan and Leah’s house

Wrong: Come for cake and ice cream at the Davises 
Wrong: Come for cake and ice cream at the Davis’
Wrong: Come for a cake and ice cream at the Davis’s

A Few More Examples of Plural vs. Possessive

Single person: Mike Miller
Whole family: The Millers
Family’s Possessive: The Millers’ hamster

Single person: Hubert Sing
Whole family: The Sings
Family’s Possessive: The Sings’ parakeet

Single person: Gladys Sanchez
Whole family: The Sanchezes
Family’s Possessive: The Sanchezes llama

Single person: Mrs. Sanders
Whole family: The Sanderses
Family’s Possessive: The Sanderses’ goat

Put it into Practice: Want to give yourself (or your kids) some practice forming plural and possessive last names? Just pull out the phone directory, open to a random page, and give it a whirl! The more they practice forming plurals and possessives, the more natural it will become for them to do so correctly.

Your Turn

What’s your pet peeve (grammar or otherwise)? Share it in the comments!

Creative Commons photo: Matteo Parrini. Used by permission of photographer.
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#1 Andy Lutz on 04.05.12 at 7:29 am

One of my grammar pet peeves was heard on the radio this morning on my way to work. The traffic congestion following a very serious accident was referred to as a fatal investigation. I didn’t know that investigations could be that dangerous.

#2 Chrissey on 04.05.12 at 10:49 am

My big grammar pet peeve is people who can’t seem to correctly use then and than. They mean two different things and are not interchangeable!!

#3 Kim on 04.05.12 at 12:41 pm

Andy: Funny!

Chrissey: So true. I’m also grieved by misuse of its/it’s, your/you’re, and their/there/they’re.

#4 Ingi on 04.06.12 at 1:40 am

People (and there seem to be a lot of them on Facebook) who confuse “lose” and “loose” – drives me batty!

#5 Kim on 04.06.12 at 9:24 am

“Lose” and “loose” — that’s another good one!

#6 Peggy on 09.07.12 at 4:59 am

If I hear one more person say “lay down” instead of “lie down,” well, I’ll just have to bite my tongue. Over the decades, somehow people have just stopped saying “lie.” You LAY carpet or bricks, you don’t “lay” down. Unless, of course, you’ve got some duck feathers that you’re setting down somewhere. “Lay” is also the past tense of “lie”.

Another one for me is “broke” and “broken.” If something doesn’t work anymore, it’s BROKEN. If it’s “broke,” then I guess it’s out of cash?

Thanks for letting me vent!

#7 Kim on 09.07.12 at 9:38 am

And to piggyback on your own peeves, Peggy, I just read that it’s now acceptable to use “alright” instead of “all right.” Really? Say it isn’t so!

#8 Jody on 01.27.14 at 2:56 pm

Recently, I went to school to up grade my accidemic skills. There we covered Concreate nouns and abstract noun, along with common, proper collective, and compound nouns. Rather difficult to learn.

#9 Kim Kautzer on 01.27.14 at 3:06 pm

I hear you, Jody. Grammar can be confusing. It takes a lot of practice to master the different skills.

#10 Suzanne on 12.03.14 at 6:12 am

So what should we do in this case? If it’s the Biessen family we’re speaking about:
“I appreciate everything you are doing for the Biessen’s.”
“I appreciate everything you are doing for the Biessens.” ?

#11 Kim Kautzer on 12.03.14 at 8:12 am

This is a great example, Suzanne. It would be the second one: “I appreciate everything you are doing for the Biessens.”

That’s because you’re speaking of the Biessens as a family, a group of people—not one Biessen, but several. You’d be making a singular noun (Biessen) plural (Biessens).

If you replace the proper noun “Biessen” with a common noun such as “child,” it’s perhaps more obvious that you’re referring to one person. (I appreciate everything you are doing for the child.)

But if you wanted to refer to more than one child, It would become: “I appreciate everything you are doing for the children.” You wouldn’t say: “I appreciate everything you are doing for the child’s.”

Hope that helps!

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