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Write the Right Word: Possessives and Proper Names

We’ve all seen it: the sign on a house saying “the Smith’s” or “the Johnson’s.”

The signs are trying to tell passersby that the Smiths or Johnsons live in that particular house. But in that context, you don’t need the apostrophe. That’s because the apostrophe before the “s” indicates ownership or possession when that’s not the sign’s intent. All you need is an “s” at the end of the name (Smiths, Johnsons).

If you have trouble remembering whether the apostrophe is necessary, think of your message. For instance, if you mean to say, “The Smiths live here,” then you don’t need the apostrophe on the sign or that sentence.

However, if you are indicating in a sentence who owns the house, then you need the apostrophe. For example: “The Johnsons’ house is the blue two-story on the corner.” Note that the apostrophe comes after the “s.” That indicates two or more people named Johnson own or live in the house. But if you are referring to a house owned by one person, you’d say, “Smith’s house is in the next block.”

With most names, you simply add an “s” to make them plural. The exceptions are names ending in “es,” “s” or “z.” Those require an “es” to make them plural: Charleses, Joneses, Gonzaleses. To indicate the possessive, just add an apostrophe after the last “s”: the Charleses’ car, the Joneses’ dog.

, Information Specialist, 701-231-5391

Filed under: Written Communication
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