Sunday, December 27, 2009

Keeping up with the Joneses

Plurals, admittedly, are not always easy, especially when it comes to last names. I have frequently seen instances of people writing statements such as:

I spent the holidays with the Brown's


I sold my car to the Williams'

When it comes to family names, as in the examples above, the key is to remember that they are nouns (though they are proper nouns, but they are still roses by another name!) just like nouns that do not refer to families. The use of the apostrophe in both examples should only be used to indicate the possessive, as in:

That is Mr. Brown's dog


The Williams' flower garden is beautiful

When it comes to referring to multiple members of the Brown family or Williams family, it is actually correct to say:

I spent the holidays with the Browns


I sold my car to the Williamses

I'm always thinking of analogous statements by which to try to remember rules, and I think it does become clearer when we replace the proper nouns of the family names with general nouns. I know that the following statements make no sense conceptually, but just for the sake of argument, you will see how the use of apostrophe makes no sense using the same sentences:

Not: I spent the holidays with the butterfly's
But: I spent the holidays with the butterflies

Not: I sold my car to the wave's
But: I sold my car to the waves

This little lesson may also get you thinking about the possessive, however, when it comes to names ending in the letter s as in the Williamses above. Most people tend to just use the apostrophe at the end of the name, such as:

It was a book about Jesus' life
He said it was Chris' fault
The Jones' house was painted last year

I have read a few differing lessons on this topic. Some say that the extra s should never be used. Others say that the s should be added in names up to 2 syllables, except where the name is foreign, such as Jesus or Moses. This latter one creates some difficulty for me because what might be a foreign name one person might not be foreign to another. The one that I subscribe to is if the name is longer than one syllable, you should use the apostrophe at the end of the name, but if it is only one syllable, then you use the apostrophe + s. So in the example just above, the first statement would remain the same, but the second two would become:

He said it was Chris's fault
The Jones's house was painted last year

Since there is some debate on the topic, I can't advise any specific rule about it, and my personal opinion is to follow convention on it. Whatever is the most common usage is probably the best. However, if this is a really burning question for you, or you have reason to be very exact about it, it's likely that you're writing something where you'll have to use an editorial manual anyway, such as APA or MLA. Either that, or you are writing for an organisation that already has a writing style that's acceptable for that organisation, such as for a government body, so I advise you to check with those manuals or with someone in the communications department at your organisation.

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