Tuesday 17 December 2019

Family Names and Apostrophes

The annual family card can be a minefield of misspellings. Should it be signed from the Jones’s? From the Jones’  ? From the Jones’s family? The answer, of course, is none of the above.

Victorian Christmas Card featuring chicken-headed sledders

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Let’s say you live next door to Dr. and Dr. Smith, their daughter Aya, and their cat Spot. Collectively, they are the Smiths. Like any noun, a surname is made plural by adding s or es.

  • The Chens live in a duplex.
  • The Miłoszes live in Saskatoon.
  • The Davises live in doubt.

Album cover for the Smiths' Complete Works

In the construction “the [name] family,” you would write the Smith family, just as you’d write the raccoon family or the Jedi family. Like raccoon and Jedi, Smith is describing family—it’s a noun acting as an adjective.

  • The Chen family grows vegetables in their yard.
  • The Miłosz family grows Christmas trees.
  • The Addams family grows stranger by the day.

Surnames and the Possessive Case

Now let’s move on to things that belong to the Smiths. Normally, to form a possessive we add ’s to the noun: Aya’s filmography. To make a plural noun possessive (assuming it ends in s), we add just the apostrophe: the twins’ filmography. (For more on apostrophes and possessives, see Apostrophes and How to Use ’Em.)

  • The Chens’ barbecue.
  • The Miłoszes’ time machine.
  • The Addamses’ penchant for the Gothic.

Of course, a single family member would—like Aya above—take ’s:

  • Dr. Chen’s Honda.
  • Professor Miłosz’s lecture.
  • Mrs. Addams’s headless roses.

Some style guides use a different possessive rule for names that end in s: they would write Mrs. Addams’ roses—or Charles’ Pomeranian, or Jesus’ sandals. However, the 2017 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style uses ’s in such cases. Since this system is the simplest, it’s what I follow too.

Painting of three Pomeranians

A Person and Their Place

It probably doesn’t help that we tend to drop the place noun when referring to people’s residences, as in I’m going to Mayumi’s [house]. We do this with stores, too: I’m going to the butcher’s [shop]. On the other hand, you might write that you’re going to [consult with] the doctor, rather than going to the doctor’s [clinic], depending on whether you’re thinking of the person or the place.

  • Can you pick up some eggs at the grocer’s?
  • We’re going to the Chens’ to watch the fireworks.
  • A day at the Addamses’ usually involves at least one brush with death.

Another Reason Family Names Are Confusing

Back when English was a younger language, Jones was a way of saying John’s; that is, it identified someone as a child of John, much like Johnson. A surname that identifies you by your father’s given name is called a patronymic. Lots of languages have them: MacDonald, ap Rhys (Anglicized as Price), Fitzwilliam, and ibn Ali are all examples of patronymics.

So when you write Addams’s (as in Wednesday Addams’s guillotine), in a sense you’re writing a double possessive—something of the person who is of Adam. It’s enough to confuse anyone.

Medieval illustration of Habsburg family tree

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