Holiday Cards: Making Last Names Plural or Possessive

Every year I write a column about how to make last names plural or possessive on holiday cards. This year, the advice comes in handy decision tree format. Just answer these simple questions to know whether you're visiting the Williams' house, the William's house or the Williamses's house. (Spoiler alert: It's the last one.)

1. Do you want to make a last name plural? If yes, go to question to 2. If no, go to question 6.

2. Does the name you want to make plural end in S, Z, Ch, Sh, X or a similar sound? If no, add S with no apostrophe. The Smiths, the Carters, the Wilsons. If yes, add ES. The Joneses, the Walshes, the Gomezes, the Williamses.

3. Does the name you want to make plural end in a vowel? If yes, don’t let that confuse you. Names that end in vowels do not have special rules for forming plurals or possessives.

If you feel an overwhelming urge to throw in an apostrophe because Medici with an S at the end seems to suggest a different pronunciation, like “Medi-sis,” resist that urge. Just add S with no apostrophe: Medicis, Casagrandes, Kowalskis, Ferreros.

4. Does the name you want to make plural end in a Y? If yes, that changes nothing. True, one berry and a second berry are two berries. But Mrs. Berry and Mr. Berry are the Berrys. Mr. O’Leary and Mrs. O’Leary are the O’Learys.

5. If you made a last name plural, do you now want to make it possessive, for example, to refer to a house that belongs to a family or a party being thrown by a family? If no, you’re done. Have a nice holiday with the Smiths or the Walshes or the Berrys.

If yes, you’re almost done. Just take that plural we formed in the previous steps and put an apostrophe at the end. The Smiths’ house. The Walshes’ New Year’s Eve party. The Gomezes’ daughter. The Berrys’ Christmas tree. The Williamses’ son. There are no exceptions.

All plural last names form the possessive with a simple apostrophe at the end. Now you can have a nice holiday at the Smiths’ house or enjoy the Walshes’ party or pig out on the Berrys’ berries.

6. Do you want to make a singular name possessive? If yes, add apostrophe plus S: Mr. Smith’s car. John Doe’s house.

7. Do you harbor some vague idea that there’s a special rule for names ending in X or Z? If yes, banish the thought. Max’s job is never Max’ job. Mr. Valdez’s house is never Mr. Valdez’ house.

8. Do you still not trust me on No. 7 because you’re absolutely sure you heard somewhere that words ending in X or Z get special treatment? You’re not crazy.

Over the years, lesser authorities have advocated special rules for these words. But those authorities never had much authority. The rules today are universal: Singular words that end in X or Z form their possessives with an apostrophe and an S: Alex’s house. Chaz’s car.

9. Do you feel confident in your ability to write out those holiday cards? If no, repeat steps 1 through 7. If yes, have a wonderful holiday.

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