It’s time again for our A Word, Please annual tradition: saving people from making embarrassing mistakes like “Seasons greetings from the Russo’s,” “Happy Hanukkah from the Weitz’s” and “This will be baby Mile’s first Christmas!” on holiday greeting cards.
So before you head to your city’s last surviving stationery store (which, by the way, should not be written as “stationary store” unless you wish to emphasize that it’s not on wheels), read this primer on avoiding common mistakes on holiday greeting cards.
Most of the errors you see on cards involve plurals and possessives of names.
Double that up by making a name plural possessive and your odds of getting it right are infinitesimally small.
It’s all because the English language cruelly uses the letter S both to form plurals and to form possessives.
But for a side of cruelty with that cruelty, the S formulas apply only sometimes. Other times, apostrophes and even the letter E get thrown into the mix.
To navigate the minefield that is your holiday greeting-card list, the trick is to take it slow.
When you’re using a name, your own or someone else’s, first ask yourself: Do I want to make this plural to talk about two or more people, as you do when you’re Mr. Russo and you’re talking about yourself and Mrs. Russo?
Do you want to make this name possessive, as when talking about something owned by Mr. Russo?
Or do I want to do both — to talk about something both the Russos own, like the Russos’ house?
If you’re shooting for a plural that’s not possessive, in most cases just add S. No apostrophe (repeat: no apostrophe). The Smiths. The Wilsons. The Wentworths.
Ignore that voice in your head that says, “Surely this can’t apply to names that end in vowels or the letter Y.” That voice is a saboteur. The correct plural of Russo is indeed Russos. The plural of Berry is Berrys. The plural of Medici is Medicis.
Yes, they look odd. Yes, a last name like Ko appears to change its pronunciation when you tack an S at the end: Kos. Tune out those concerns and just add S.
The exception: If the name ends in an S or similar sound, be it from an S as in Jones, a Z as in Sanchez, a Ch as in March or an Sh as in Walsh, make it plural by adding Es. Mr. and Mrs. Jones are the Joneses. Mr. and Mrs. Sanchez are the Sanchezes. Ditto that for the Marches and the Walshes.
So you will sign your card “Happy holidays from the Johnsons” or “Happy holidays from the Nicholases.” There’s no apostrophe involved, not even for the Kos.
To make a singular name possessive, first ask: Does the name end with S? Sounds don’t matter here. Just spellings. If the name does not end in S, add apostrophe and S: “We’re going to Mary Larson’s house. We can’t wait to eat more of Mr. Brown’s ambrosia salad.”
If the name ends in S, you have two options. Either add an apostrophe: Miles’. Or add apostrophe plus S: Miles’s. Both are correct. Whatever you do, just don’t cleave poor Miles’ name in two by writing it Mile’s.
Names you want to make plural and possessive double up your difficulty. But you can get through them if you just remember that plural possessives always end with an apostrophe — no extra S is added. Just as you’d say two dogs’ tails, you’d say you’re going to the Blakes’ house. Step one: Make Blake plural: Blakes. Step two: Add the apostrophe.
That applies to all names regardless of spelling because all their plurals end in S. The Berrys’ house. The Kos’ house. Names that end in S, like Jones, can seem a little more confusing. But making them plural, possessive or both is simple. Mr. Jones plus Mrs. Jones are the Joneses. Their house is the Joneses’ house.