Pet peeves, apostrophes, and plural family names

What's the difference between plural and possessive? When is it correct to use apostrophes when writing last names?

Pet Peeves

Do you have a pet peeve?

You know, those annoying little things that don’t seem to irritate anyone else, but drive you positively insane?

I actually found a site——that lists 500 pet peeves, including:

  1. People who whistle when they are happy.
  2. Greeting cards that throw sparkles, sequins or confetti on the hapless recipient.
  3. People [who] don’t use coasters.
  4. Keeping your Christmas lights up until February.
  5. People who dress their pets.
  6. Leaving the toilet seat up.
  7. Cracking your knuckles.
  8. Road maps that aren’t folded correctly.
  9. People who talk on their cell phone at the movies.
  10. Things sticking out of drawers.

I admit that the items on this short list draw different reactions from me. I think it’s silly to dress a pet, for example, but I wouldn’t call it a pet peeve. I can take or leave an incorrectly folded map. And I don’t mind happy whistling at all!

No, for something to qualify as a pet peeve, it has to drive me absolutely batty. Nuts. Fingernails-on-a-chalkboard crazy.

I have several—as do you (admit it). But let me introduce you to just one of them: the misplaced apostrophe.

The apostrophe has two uses: contraction and possession. Unfortunately, people are so totally confused that they’re always sticking random apostrophes where punctuation marks should fear to tread:

  1. In simple plurals, such as “No pet’s allowed” (should be “No pets allowed”)
  2. In family names when referring to the family as one unit, such as “The Wilson’s live there” (should be “The Wilsons live there”)

Do You Know the Johnson’s Johnsons?

One of these days I’ll write up a lesson on plurals vs. possessives. Today, let’s focus on family names.

Watch out when using apostrophes with last names! Grammar guides can differ on how to use apostrophes, but if you follow these rules, you’ll get it right.

One Person’s Last Name

To show possession of one person, add -’s.

Sarah Smith: Mitts is Sarah Smith’s dog.
Jared Jones: Heinz is Jared Jones’s dog.
Reid Roberts: Arrow is Reid Roberts’s dog.

Last names that end in -s can be tricky!

Right: Arrow is Reid Roberts’s dog.
Wrong: Arrow is Reid Robert’s dog.

Don’t use an apostrophe when you mean to make a plural.

Right: The Smiths also want a gerbil.
Wrong: The Smith’s also want a gerbil.

The Whole Family’s Last Name

To show possession of a whole family: First, add -es or -s to write the family’s last name in plural form. Then, add an apostrophe at the end to show possession.

Right: Pip belongs to the Joneses. Pip is the Joneses cat.
Wrong: Pip belongs to the Joneses. Pip is the Jones’s cat.

Right: Jet belongs to the Smiths. Jet is the Smiths cat.
Wrong: Jet belongs to the Smiths. Jet is the Smiths’s cat.


Single person: Mike Miller
Whole family: The Millers
Family’s Possessive: The Millers’ hamster

Single person: Hubert Sing
Whole family: The Sings
Family’s Possessive: The Sings’ parakeet

Single person: Gladys Sanchez
Whole family: The Sanchezes
Family’s Possessive: The Sanchezes llama

Single person: Mrs. Sanders
Whole family: The Sanderses
Family’s Possessive: The Sanderses’ goat

Put it into Practice: Want to give yourself (or your kids) some practice forming plural and possessive last names? Just pull out the phone directory, open to a random page, and give it a whirl! The more they practice forming plurals and possessives, the more natural it will become for them to do so correctly.

Your Turn

What’s your pet peeve (grammar or otherwise)? Share it in the comments!

Creative Commons photo: Matteo Parrini. Used by permission of photographer.
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  • Posted April 5, 2012

    Andy Lutz

    One of my grammar pet peeves was heard on the radio this morning on my way to work. The traffic congestion following a very serious accident was referred to as a fatal investigation. I didn’t know that investigations could be that dangerous.

  • Posted April 5, 2012


    My big grammar pet peeve is people who can’t seem to correctly use then and than. They mean two different things and are not interchangeable!!

  • Posted April 5, 2012


    Andy: Funny!

    Chrissey: So true. I’m also grieved by misuse of its/it’s, your/you’re, and their/there/they’re.

  • Posted April 6, 2012


    People (and there seem to be a lot of them on Facebook) who confuse “lose” and “loose” – drives me batty!

    • Posted April 6, 2012


      “Lose” and “loose” — that’s another good one!

  • Posted September 7, 2012


    If I hear one more person say “lay down” instead of “lie down,” well, I’ll just have to bite my tongue. Over the decades, somehow people have just stopped saying “lie.” You LAY carpet or bricks, you don’t “lay” down. Unless, of course, you’ve got some duck feathers that you’re setting down somewhere. “Lay” is also the past tense of “lie”.

    Another one for me is “broke” and “broken.” If something doesn’t work anymore, it’s BROKEN. If it’s “broke,” then I guess it’s out of cash?

    Thanks for letting me vent!

    • Posted September 7, 2012


      And to piggyback on your own peeves, Peggy, I just read that it’s now acceptable to use “alright” instead of “all right.” Really? Say it isn’t so!

  • Posted January 27, 2014


    Recently, I went to school to up grade my accidemic skills. There we covered Concreate nouns and abstract noun, along with common, proper collective, and compound nouns. Rather difficult to learn.

  • Posted January 27, 2014

    Kim Kautzer

    I hear you, Jody. Grammar can be confusing. It takes a lot of practice to master the different skills.

  • Posted April 12, 2015


    I’m customizing a doormat, and they all say “Welcome to (next line) The Nicholsons.” Should there be an apostrophe in there, because it is actually an abbreviation for “The Nicholson’s home?”

  • Posted April 12, 2015


    Cheryl: The example is correct—there should be no apostrophe. The plural of Nicholson is Nicholsons. Since your house is home to a number of Nicholsons, the doormat should be written with the plural form of your last name. Should you want to include an apostrophe, it would go after the /s/ (The Nicholsons’).


    Welcome to
    the Nicholsons

    Welcome to
    the Nicholson Home

    Welcome to
    the Nicholsons’

    Welcome to
    the Nicholsons’ Home


    Welcome to
    the Nicholson’s

    Hope that helps!

    • Posted April 12, 2015


      Ah, yes, dumb mistake in my first ex. I meant short for “The Nicholsons’ home.” I guess “Welcome to the Nicholsons” just doesn’t sound right to me, but thanks for your response!

  • Posted September 29, 2015

    Grammar Snob

    So many people don’t know the difference between your and you’re. It’s ridiculous! It’s best to go by this rule: If you can substitute the word for “you are,” use you’re. If not, use your.

    “I saw your friend at the store.”
    “Let me know if you’re interested.”

    • Posted October 1, 2015

      Kim Kautzer

      I couldn’t agree more. We actually address the you’re/your dilemma in another post. It’s always a good reminder to use those apostrophes correctly!

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