A Word, Please: Here’s an early grammar gift for the holidays

Before you start composing your holiday cards and invitations, here’s a cautionary tale for you.

Recently, I bought an e-book that I didn’t realize was self-published. But by the time the protagonist made her third or fourth visit to “the Cooper’s,” it was clear the manuscript never had a professional editor.

That error was no surprise. But then, just a week later, I noticed in an otherwise well-edited best seller that a character would be heading to “the Nashs’ house.”

Plural possessives of proper names are hard. And this time of year, proper name errors aren’t just a concern for authors. Holiday cards and party invitations are minefields for anyone who might make reference to the Smiths or the Williamses or for anyone who wants to talk about visiting the Smiths’ house or the Williamses’ house.

Errors involving plural proper names are so common that I almost never see them written correctly. So here, just in time for the holidays, is a guide for getting them right.

When working with proper names, break the process down into two steps. 1. Ask yourself whether the name is singular or plural. 2. Ask yourself whether you want it to show possession.

Singular names are easy. Smith, Wilson, Williams, Nash, Mendez, Berry. But plural names confuse people, who end up penning errors like, “We’re looking forward to spending time with the Smith’s or the Mendez’ or the Berry’s.”

Avoid these errors by heeding this most basic rule: Apostrophes don’t form plurals. To make a proper name into a plural, simply add S or ES. Mr. Smith plus Mrs. Smith equals two Smiths. “We’re looking forward to seeing the Smiths this year.” For most proper names, it’s that simple.

Names ending in S, Z, Ch, Sh, X seem more complicated, but they’re not. Just add ES. Mr. Nash plus Mrs. Nash equal the Nashes. Mr. Gomez plus Junior Gomez are the Gomezes.

Names that end in Y confuse people too because many generic words that end in Y, like “berry,” form the plural with “ies,” as in “berries.” Proper nouns don’t work that way. The letters within the name never change. Therefore, Mr. Berry plus Mrs. Berry equals two Berrys who, along with the rest of their clan, are the Berrys.

Once you’ve established whether the name is plural or singular, decide whether you want it to be possessive. Singular nouns form the possessive with just an apostrophe and S: Mr. Smith’s house. Mr. Mendez’s house. Ms. Berry’s house.

The only exception is that, in certain editing styles, names ending in S don’t get another S after the apostrophe. So in a newspaper, you might see Mr. Jones’ house or Mr. Williams’ house. But book publishing doesn’t make this exception. In that style, it’s Mr. Jones’s house and Mr. Williams’s house.

Regardless of which style you follow, there are no such exceptions for names ending in S, X, Z, Sh or Ch. Certain writing guides over the years have tried to create exceptions for some of these words. But none of those exceptions apply in modern publishing. Mr. Mendez’s house takes an apostrophe and S. So does Max’s house. So do Xerox’s earnings.

People get most tripped up when a name is both plural and possessive. But these are surprisingly easy. Unlike singular possessives, which take an apostrophe followed by an S, plural possessives take an apostrophe alone. So if you’re going to the home of the Smiths, you’re going to the Smiths’ house. If you’re going to visit the Williamses, that would be at the Williamses’ house. Mr. and Mrs. Mendez, known collectively as the Mendezes, live in the Mendezes’ house. And Mr. and Mrs. Berry, whom we call the Berrys, live in the Berrys’ house.

Plural possessives of proper names really are that easy if you just take it step by step.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at