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.)
Keep learning! Browse the Style category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:
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