Let’s say your last name is Manziel. When you send out your family’s Christmas card, how should you sign it?
a) The Manziel’s
b) The Manziels
c) The Manziels’
d) The family of the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner
Somewhere along the way, many of us have gotten it into our heads that there needs to be an apostrophe (’) involved when writing a family’s last name. I see it all the time, not only on Christmas cards, but also on invitations, mailboxes, and cute little signs by people’s front doors.
“Come welcome the new year at the Smith’s house!”
“The Kirkpatrick’s, Jon & Deborah.”
“The Wilson’s, 1500 Elm Street.”
Those are all wrong. In the first example, since it’s talking about something that belongs to the Smiths (their house), there does need to be an apostrophe. Apostrophes indicate possession. But since there is presumably more than one Smith, it’s also plural. So the apostrophe goes after the s. “Come welcome the new year at the Smiths’ house!”
In both the second and third examples, we are not talking about anything belonging to anyone. We are simply stating the last name of the people who live in the house. There is no need for an apostrophe. “The Kirkpatricks, Jon & Deborah” and “The Wilsons, 1500 Elm Street.”
The only, I repeat, the only occasion you would use the format “Wilson’s” is when you are talking about a single person possessing something. This might happen with guys more frequently than girls, since they tend to refer to each other by last name. “Hey, we’re meeting at Wilson’s house for poker tonight.” We are talking about one guy, whose last name is Wilson, whose house everyone is meeting at to play poker.
If you have a last name that ends with an s (like mine!), it seems trickier, but it’s actually simple. Just write your last name normally (“Stallings”) except when you are talking about something that belongs to your family (“the Stallings’ house”). You know it’s wrong if you’re breaking up your name with an apostrophe (“Stalling’s”).
Going back to the quiz from the beginning of this post, both (b) and (d) are correct.