Where to Place the Possessive Apostrophe in a Surname
You see them all the time during rural drives and suburban errands alike, those olde-fashioned wooden shingles mounted on mailboxes or dangling from porches or fastened to walls: “The Smith’s” and the like—stark reminders that possessives still throw many people for a loop.
Rules about possessives can be complicated, but this error is straightforward enough: Take away the apostrophe and the final s, and what do you have? “The Smith.” That’s obviously not right (unless the resident ostentatiously refers to himself as “The Smith” or employs hammer, tongs, and anvil to practice her livelihood).
Who lives at this house? The Munsters. Whose residence is it, then? “The Munsters’” — or perhaps “The Munsters’ house.”
(The additional s is pervasive in books and many other media, while its absence is typical in journalism — in the old days of mechanical typesetting, that meant one less piece of type to position — and other more casual or ephemeral kinds of publications. In the organic medium of wood, the simpler style can easily be forgiven.)
And what if the surname already ends with an s? The rule is to append es to the name, so, the plural of Addams is Addamses. The sign should therefore read “The Addamses,” or “The Addamses’ house.”
This construction is admittedly cumbersome, and there is a way to avoid it without giving a passing copy editor a case of the shingles: Label your abode “The Addams house” or inform visitors and passersby that “The Addams family lives here.” This wording is not as folksy, but it still manages a homey touch without adding sibilant syllables or pesky apostrophes.
Admittedly, this ubiquitous error is as much the fault of the sign maker as it is that of the person who commissions the sign, but because it’s difficult to make amends by amending an error engraved in wood, you might want to remember, when you approach the artist’s workbench, the rule for the proper position for the possessive apostrophe. (And email the scribe a link to this post.)
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5 Responses to “Where to Place the Possessive Apostrophe in a Surname”
Mark, you’ve done a great job of clarifying a tricky rule. I see these errors frequently, and they drive me crazy!
I do note that in your fifth paragraph, you state: And what if the surname already ends with an s? What should the Addams family’s shingle read? Again, ask yourself who lives there. Answer: the Addams. The sign should therefore read “The Addamses,” or “The Addamses’ house” or “The Addamses’s house.”
Isn’t the answer to the question “Who lives there?” actually “the Addamses”? Then it would be very clear that one should add either an apostrophe or apostrophe+s to the basic root, as you do correctly instruct.
Again, thanks for making the correct forms for this issue so clear!
“Isn’t the answer to the question ‘Who lives there?’ actually ‘the Addamses’?”
Good catch: Yes, my bad. I meant to write “the Addams family” — so that phrase, or “the Addamses,” is the correct answer. By the way, the shingle could also read “The Addamses'” or “The Addamses’s, with “house” implied.
As someone with a surname ending in s, I usually add an apostrophe after the s to indicate possession. eg Mary Hodges’ books. If I’m talking about our family I would refer to The Hodges – perhaps not strictly correct but easier to say and write than Hodgeses!
In this specific instance (surname identifying the residence), I say: Why complicate matters? Forget the apostrophe completely. The Smiths, The Munsters, The Addams.
This way, the question is: Who lives here (not whose house is this)?
So, who lives here? The Smiths do. 🙂
“In this specific instance (surname identifying the residence), I say: Why complicate matters? Forget the apostrophe completely. The Smiths, The Munsters, The Addams.
“This way, the question is: Who lives here (not whose house is this)?
“So, who lives here? The Smiths do.”
Good point. I’ve seen such usage and should have included that alternative. Bottom line: No apostrophe before the possessive s, or no apostrophe at all.