A Word, Please: Here’s a decision tree for writing holiday cards

Once again, the holidays are upon us. And once again I’m reminded that people need help writing plurals and possessives of family names on cards, invitations and anywhere else a punctuation flub could prove embarrassing.

Happy holidays from the Wilson’s


Can’t wait to see you at the Jone’s party

We’re staying at the Williams’s this year


If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you know that, over the years, I’ve done my part to help people navigate these treacherous waters. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you also know that my part is worth exactly bubkes.

People still struggle with how to make last names possessive, plural or both. So this year, I thought I’d try a different approach: a handy decision tree you can pass out to those folks (you know who they are) who don’t invest as much care in their holiday cards as you do. Just run through these simple questions.

1. Do you want to make a last name plural? If yes, go to question to 2. If no, go to question 6.

2. Does the name you want to make plural end in S, Z, Ch, Sh, X or a similar sound? If no, add S with no apostrophe. The Smiths, the Carters, the Wilsons. If yes, add ES. The Joneses, the Walshes, the Gomezes, the Williamses.


3. Does the name you want to make plural end in a vowel? If yes, don’t let that confuse you. Names that end in vowels do not have special rules for forming plurals or possessives.

If you feel an overwhelming urge to throw in an apostrophe because Medici with an S at the end seems to suggest a different pronunciation, like “Medi-sis,” resist that urge. Just add S with no apostrophe: Medicis, Casagrandes, Kowalskis, Ferreros.

4. Does the name you want to make plural end in a Y? If yes, that changes nothing. True, one berry and a second berry are two berries. But Mrs. Berry and Mr. Berry are the Berrys. Mr. O’Leary and Mrs. O’Leary are the O’Learys.

5. If you made a last name plural, do you now want to make it possessive, for example, to refer to a house that belongs to a family or a party being thrown by a family? If no, you’re done. Have a nice holiday with the Smiths or the Walshes or the Berrys.

If yes, you’re almost done. Just take that plural we formed in the previous steps and put an apostrophe at the end. The Smiths’ house. The Walshes’ New Year’s Eve party. The Gomezes’ daughter. The Berrys’ Christmas tree. The Williamses’ son. There are no exceptions.

All plural last names form the possessive with a simple apostrophe at the end. Now you can have a nice holiday at the Smiths’ house or enjoy the Walshes’ party or pig out on the Berrys’ berries.

6. Do you want to make a singular name possessive? If yes, add apostrophe plus S: Mr. Smith’s car. John Doe’s house.

7. Do you harbor some vague idea that there’s a special rule for names ending in X or Z? If yes, banish the thought. Max’s job is never Max’ job. Mr. Valdez’s house is never Mr. Valdez’ house.


8. Do you still not trust me on No. 7 because you’re absolutely sure you heard somewhere that words ending in X or Z get special treatment? You’re not crazy.

Over the years, lesser authorities have advocated special rules for these words. But those authorities never had much authority. The rules today are universal: Singular words that end in X or Z form their possessives with an apostrophe and an S: Alex’s house. Chaz’s car.

9. Do you feel confident in your ability to write out those holiday cards? If no, repeat steps 1 through 7. If yes, have a wonderful holiday.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at