A Word, Please: Keeping up with the possessives

Everyone knows that the holidays are a great time to show your good will to man. But they're also a great time to show your backside.

From spiked eggnog to shameless re-gifting to caroling "the Lord is come" to your neighbors the Feinbergs, the holidays provide countless ways to show people sides of ourselves we spend the rest of the year trying to hide.

And amid all the drunken office parties and jokes about Chia Pets made right before opening gifts of Chia Pets, the biggest holiday embarrassment hazard is that box of greeting cards sitting on your desk. It doesn't matter how carefully you chose the cards. They could be so blandly inoffensive as to be completely meaningless ("Wishing you warm wishes and wonderful warmth!").

But they're a minefield of potential humiliation. They provide the perfect opportunity to reveal our confusion about plurals and possessives.

Happy holidays from the Smith's.

To the Thomases'.

We look forward to visiting the Garcias's house this year.

It just wouldn't be Christmas without all those flubbed plurals and possessives on holiday cards and, worse, on personalized gifts like doormats and placards that welcome visitors to the home of "The Jones's."

But unlike those fumbling attempts profess how much you "love" your new Snuggie, these catastrophes are avoidable. Just remember the things you already know about plurals and possessives, and then take it slowly.

Say, for example, you're Smith. The rules of plurals tell us that, when you're talking about more than one Smith, you add an S: the Smiths.

That's different from possessives. To show that something belongs either to Smith or to all the Smiths, you need to remember the rules of possessives. For singular words that don't end in S, you form the possessive by adding an apostrophe and an S. The dog's tail. Smith's house. For plural words that end in S, add only the apostrophe. The dogs' tails. The Smiths' house. Those freak plurals that don't end in S, words like men, children and deer you treat just like singulars: add an apostrophe and an S: the men's department.

So if the person you're writing to or about has a name not ending in S, ask yourself whether you want a singular (Smith) or a plural (Smiths). Then, if you want to show possession, note whether it's singular possessive (Smith's), or a plural possessive (the Smiths').

Words that end in S are harder. Authorities disagree on whether to add an extra S to the singular possessive. "I visited Thomas's house" and "I visited Thomas' house" are both valid style choices. But the former is more popular in professional publishing.

So a safe solution is to treat singular nouns ending in S the same way you treat singulars nouns not ending in S: Form the possessive with an apostrophe and an S. Thomas's house. The important thing to remember is that Thomas is singular.

When you're talking about more than one, you first form that plural by adding -ES. One Thomas, two Thomases. Then, to note that something is owned by more than one Thomas, just take the plural and make it possessive: Thomases'.

Yes, a system that uses the same letter to form plurals that it uses to form possessives is kind of cruel. Yes, that cruelty is compounded by the fact that some last names that are also first names — Thomas and Mr. Thomas — and a last name may seem like a plural version of a first name, as in William and Mr. Williams.

But just remain calm. Save that precious hysteria for the holiday dinner table when Dad brings up the latest election or Mom brings up your brother's lifestyle choices.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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