Apostrophes in Last Names

the smiths

Apostrophes in last names?

Does this picture make you shudder? It should. It shows something that many folks struggle with before deciding to just follow the herd. And we all know how that turns out, especially with lemmings, right?

So today I’m focusing on formatting house signs that tell others who lives in the house, although all kinds of signs can be so wrong (see below).

Many homeowners pay for signs that are incorrect, probably because that’s how the sign maker made it and they figure it must be right. But this is a perfect example of being smart in one area — sign making — but not necessarily in another — grammar.

Say a family named Smith lives in a house. How does adding an apostrophe show that the family has more members? The plural of Smith is Smiths. NOT Smith’s.

And if for some reason the Smiths wanted to use the possessive, they would have to use the plural possessive. To say the Smith’s live here makes no sense. One person is Susan Smith. Two or more persons with that last name are the Smiths. So, the plural possessive would be the Smiths’.

no possessive: tHE smiths
SINGULAR POSSESSIVE: “Susan Smith’s house”
PLURAL POSSESSIVE: “The Smiths’ house”

Are you with me so far? Smiths is easy enough, right?

But what about last names that already end in s, like Jones? Oh boy. That’s a difficult name to work with, but it doesn’t have to be.

NO POSSESSIVE: THE JONESES
SINGULAR POSSESSIVE: JOHN JONES’ HOUSE
PLURAL POSSESSIVE: THE JONESES’ HOUSE

So remember: For a house sign, you don’t want or need any apostrophe. Just the pure plural will work. It’s a shorthand way of saying “The Smiths live here.” Now, go out and look at YOUR house sign. That’s OK. I’ll wait.

Was it done correctly? Do you need to change it? And if anyone you know is a sign maker, you might want to show that person this post.

For more on apostrophes:
Apostrophes #1
Apostrophes #2
Apostrophes #3
Apostrophes #4

13 thoughts on “Apostrophes in Last Names

  1. Dena Mekalson

    If my last name is Mekalson, my sign should say … Welcome to the Mekalsons’ because it is implying that we are welcoming them to our house, right?

    1. Susan Rooks Post author

      Good grief, Dena — good for you! Hardly anyone understands using apostrophes in names, let alone plurals or possessives. And yes, you are right. If it was just your house, “Welcome to Dena Mekalson’s house” would be right.

      I see far too many signs saying “Welcome to the Smith’s house,” or “The Smith’s,” which are just so wrong. Pat yourself on the back!

  2. Marcus Glasgow

    My name is Marcus. People love to write, for instance “Marcus’ House”. My problem with this is that’s not how an English speaker would pronounce that phrase. It would be pronounced “Marcuses” house–so the spelling should be “Marcus’s”. (I can’t think of a single case in English where an apostrophe implies pronunciation of a letter that’s not written.)

    The page linked above (American Grammar Checkup: Apostrophes #4: Possessives) confirms this: “If the base word is singular, add an apostrophe and s.” Simple. So, “JOHN JONES’ HOUSE” should actually be “JOHN JONES’S HOUSE”, since Jones (like Marcus) is singular.

  3. Marcus Glasgow

    Sorry, I actually had a question and got sidetracked. How would you write about the house which belongs to Mrs. & Mr. Smith? Since we don’t refer to Mrs. & Mr. “Smiths” (in the plural), it seems we’d use the singular:

    “MRS. & MR. SMITH’S HOUSE”

    On the other hand, it’s a house which belongs to two Smiths, so

    “MRS. & MR. SMITHS’ HOUSE”?

    ‘Tis a quandary.

  4. Mj

    Can’t a last name when referring specifically to the family members (like smith’s house) be a collective noun and singular possessive? Collectively they own it as a single family unit. Like the group’s home or the family’s home. Isn’t smith comparable to group or family in this instance?

  5. Susanne

    Ok. I have taken a pole on this one and have gotten so many different answers. On a sign ‘welcome to our home The levitz …?’ Levitzes? Levitzs. Levitzs’.
    Which one is it?

    1. Susan Rooks Post author

      If your sign is just your name made plural, which makes sense if there are at least two of you with that last name, it would be Levitzes. If you were making it plural possessive, it would be the Levitzes’ house.

    2. Susan Rooks Post author

      Hi, Susanne. It’s the Levitzes, even though it looks odd.

      It’s funny because if the name were Smith, we’d all be fine with the Smiths, right? One Smith, many Smiths. We make regular plurals by adding either an s or es to them, right?

      Butf for some reason, a name that already ends in s like Jones or mine (Rooks) looks weird when we make it plural.

      So I’m Susan Rooks, but there are many other Rookses around … grammatically correct, even if it looks or sounds odd.

  6. Heather

    I’m looking to buy a recipe box for a gift. The person making the box has “The Smith’s Family Recipes” as an example. Would this format be correct? I want to make sure it is before I buy it. Thank you.

    1. Susan Rooks Post author

      Hi, Heather, and sorry to be doing this so late. Life got a tiny bit busy!

      OK, you have three choices:

      1. The Smith family recipes, not making anything possessive.
      2. The Smith family’s recipes, making “Smith family” the possessive form.
      3. The Smith’s family recipes. Here the understanding changes from recipes belonging to the Smith family (as in #2) or the Smiths having what they refer to as “family recipes.”

      Did this help … or hurt? Hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

    1. Susan Rooks Post author

      Hi, L, and thanks for asking! When we’re referring to our last name in a plural sense, which you are, we do not use an apostrophe.

      But if we said, “The Barnetts’ house is the red one,” we’d be referring to the name in a possessive sense, so yes. We’d need an apostrophe then.

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