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A Word, Please: Here’s how to avoid misplaced apostrophes during the holidays

Christmas and holiday cards are displayed on a rack for sale.
Greeting cards are displayed on a rack for sale at Cost Plus World Market. Grammar columnist June Casagrande offers helpful punctuation tips for the holidays.
(D. Ross Cameron / McClatchy-Tribune)

I know a woman, let’s call her Ms. Mancini, who’s a bit of a grammar stickler. One year, Ms. Mancini and her husband got a very thoughtful Christmas gift: a carved wood placard to mount by the front door of their new home, engraved with “The Mancini’s.”

For years, that apostrophe taunted her. Eventually, the family moved. “The Mancini’s” haven’t been seen since, and the Mancinis themselves seem just fine with that.

Mall kiosks peddling custom woodcrafts haven’t been around since the days of mall kiosks peddling summer sausages and spreadable cheese. But Christmas cards, holiday video greetings, mailed gifts and business correspondence are alive and well, proving the holidays are still a great time to show the world you don’t know how to form plurals and possessives of proper names.

Job One if you want to avoid embarrassing mistakes on holiday greeting cards and other correspondence is to memorize this rule: Never use an apostrophe to form a plural. One Wilson, two Wilsons. One Smith, two Smiths. This doesn’t change simply because a name ends in a vowel or vowel sound. One Macini, two Mancinis. One Wu, two Wus. One Zooey. Two Zooeys.

The impulse to add an apostrophe is strong when the name ends with a vowel, as in Wu or Eli. Without an apostrophe, the letter S seems to change the pronunciation of the vowel, giving you words that sound like “wuss” or “Ellis.” Ignore that impulse. The rule stays the same. Two Wus. Two Elis.

To make a plural of a proper name, in most cases, just add S. If the name ends in an S or Z sound, like Williams or Chavez, add ES. The Williamses. The Chavezes. So if you’re writing that you spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Chavez, do not write “the Chavez’s.” They’re the Chavezes. No apostrophe.

In summary: Plurals are easy — deceptively easy. Just add S or ES.

Possessives are another matter entirely. They can be hard, especially plural possessives like “the Mancinis’ house.” For these, hold fast to the rules and take them one step at a time.

To form a possessive of a singular name, you normally add apostrophe plus S: Brad’s gift. If the singular word or name ends with S, there are two different methods for making it possessive. The style followed by most news media says just add an apostrophe: Kris’ tree. The style followed by book publishing says to use both an apostrophe and an S: Kris’s tree. Both are correct. Pick one style and stick with it.

To form a possessive out of most plurals, like dogs, just add an apostrophe: the dogs’ owners. The only exceptions are oddball plurals, like children, which don’t end in S. For those, make them possessive the same way you make singular nouns possessive: add apostrophe and S: The children’s toys.

To review: To form a plural possessive, first make the word plural, then make it possessive. The process is no different for “the dogs’ owners” than it is for the “the Mancinis’ house.”

Don’t let a vowel or an S sound at the end of the name throw you. It’s the same two steps. Make the name plural: Chavezes, Mancinis, Wus. Then add the possessive apostrophe. We celebrated the holidays at the Chavezes’ house. We got a card from the Mancinis’ daughter. We love the Wus’ holiday decorations.

So before you put pen to stationery this holiday season, remember: If your last name is Smith, your family are the Smiths and your house is the Smiths’ house. If your name is Felix and you’re named after your Uncle Felix, the two of you are Felixes and if you have a nice talk it’s Felixes’ conversation. If your last name is Williams, your family is the Williamses and your tree is the Williamses’ tree.

Follow these simple rules and you don’t have to worry whether someone will be writing about your blunder years later.

The writer 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 JuneTCN@aol.com.

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