The Christmas Card Conundrum

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.

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The Student’s Guide to Style

Okay, here’s a good one for you students. Tell me if this scene sounds familiar: You’re working on your references page for a paper, and you’re not sure how to do the date. You Google “format date in reference list,” and click on the link to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). After poking around on the OWL site, you find that you’re supposed to put the date in parentheses after the author’s name. Easy enough. You go back through your list and put all your dates in parentheses.

A few weeks later, you get the paper back. A few marks here, a few scribbled comments there, but overall it’s looking pretty good. Until you get to the last page. There, your professor has scribbled through all your carefully added parentheses, adding a “-1” by each entry. Your respectable 86 has now been brought down to a disappointing 74.

Being the good student that you are, you go up to your professor after class and graciously explain that you’re not sure why you got a 74, that you researched it and you know you did it right, and that it seems a little extreme to take off a point for every occurrence of the same tiny mistake.

Your professor, without looking up, says, “Did you not read your syllabus? All papers for this class are to be formatted using Chicago style.”

Chicago style? What does that even mean? I thought she said Times New Roman, 11 point.

“Who’s next?”

Saddened by this ugly reminder that all professors hate students and want them to fail, you stuff the paper into your backpack and walk out the door.

If only you had known about one little thing: style guides.

Style guides are what make the changing rules of grammar manageable. They are sets of rules for writing and formatting written works that are specific to certain groups or genres of writing. Following are some of the most commonly used styles and the genres in which they are used:

  • American Medical Association (AMA): medical journals and publishing
  • American Psychological Association (APA): social sciences
  • Associated Press (AP): journalism
  • Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago): general publishing
  • Council of Science Editors (CSE or CBE): biology, physics, medicine, math, earth sciences, and social sciences
  • Modern Language Association (MLA): academic writing, specifically humanities
  • Turabian (similar to Chicago): academic writing, specifically humanities (Einsohn, p. 60)

In the story above, you found the rule for APA style, but your professor wanted Chicago style. In APA style, the publication date in a reference list has parentheses around it. In Chicago style, it doesn’t.

Tricky? Yes. Helpful? I would argue also yes. With style guides, we can do what makes the most sense for different types of writing without worrying about breaking a silly rule. For example, the APA more often uses numerals for numbers (i.e., “14” instead of “fourteen”), while Chicago more often spells out the number. That’s because APA style is geared toward scientific and technical writing, and spelled-out numbers would make scientific and technical writing even more cumbersome and confusing than it has to be.

You can usually find abbreviated versions of style guides online, and if you really want to get into the nitty gritty details, you can buy an entire printed manual for each style. Though style manual publishers aren’t quite as bad as textbook publishers, they do come out with new versions every so often. Truthfully, new versions are pretty necessary. Written style is always evolving, especially in recent years as the Internet and other technologies are becoming more and more important to the world of writing.

Of course, even the 900-page manuals that outline the rules for each style cannot cover every possible scenario. And sometimes an author may choose to do something that doesn’t fit with what the style manual suggests. When this happens, the author or editor creates a style sheet.

A style sheet is a highly customized style guide. In fact, it is often called an in-house style guide, because many smaller publishing firms have their own style guides that complement the official style they generally use. Style sheets help authors express their unique preferences while remaining within acceptable grammatical guidelines. They are a HUGE help to editors and proofreaders, who can quickly refer to the style sheet whenever they come across questionable spelling or punctuation or other grammatical idiosyncrasies.

For example, Chicago recommends italicizing foreign words on their first use, then using Roman (regular) text every time the word appears later in the manuscript. But a French-American writing a memoir of her family’s history may wish to incorporate lots of French words to give the true flavor of her blended heritage, and italicizing every single French word may interrupt the flow of her story. This author may choose to use Roman text even for the first occurrence of French words. In this situation, she (or her editor) would add an entry to her style sheet that says, “French words Roman text on first and every use.”

So, student or not, here are two things you should remember:

  • Find out what style guide is required or recommended for what you are writing.
  • When you’re writing, use a style sheet to keep track of decisions you make about how things should be formatted.

Follow those suggestions, and you’ll always be in style. Haha.


American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: Author, 2010.

Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Purdue University. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

University of Chicago Press. The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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Why English Needs Su

“Lindsey Brown also commented on their wall post.”

What? Whose wall post? Shouldn’t it say “Lindsey Brown also commented on her wall post”? Yes, it should. But Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the crew at Facebook have run into the same problem a lot of us often run into: English doesn’t have a gender-neutral, singular personal pronoun. If you’re not a grammar junkie, let me break down that term for you:

“gender-neutral” = not specifically male or female
“singular” = just one
“personal” = refers to a person, not a thing
“pronoun” = a little word that takes the place of a noun and often refers to people

We didn’t have this problem back in the day when it was okay to refer to everyone as a male. Authors were free to use “he,” “him,” and “his” to their hearts’ content, regardless of whom they were talking about: man, woman, or child. Eventually, though, someone had the gumption to point out that not all humans are males.

A good observation, but now we don’t know what to say when we talk about a single, unspecified person. “Every person who came through the glass doors had ___ head down, avoiding eye contact with the sinister doorman.” We can say “his head,” but then we run the risk of being misogynistic. We can say “her head,” but readers will be confused because they are not used to seeing female pronouns as the default. We can do what most people do and say “their head,” but then we’ve made a grammatical faux pas. Why? Because “their” is plural (refers to more than one), and “person” is singular.

There is a movement, accepted in some circles, to make “they” and “their” okay to use when talking about a single hypothetical person. Actually, lots of authors have been doing that for a long time. Unfortunately, the singular “they” has not yet become correct mainstream grammar and still has many opponents. As Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, says, “…use they if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself” (Fogarty, 2006).

If this whole dilemma is news to you, you are probably one of the millions who throw around plural pronouns all the time and are blissfully unaware that somewhere, some grammar freak is judging you. Of course, you are free to continue that. However, if you are writing for an audience of grammar freaks (professors, department heads, scientific journal editors) and would like to begin using some acceptable alternatives, consider the following:

Pluralize. If you can, change the singular noun (that would be “person” in the example above) to a plural noun. Then you can use a plural pronoun, which, in English, all happen to be gender-neutral. Our sentence now becomes “All the people who came through the glass doors had their heads down, avoiding eye contact with the sinister doorman.”

Pick a sex. If you justify why you are using one gender or the other, readers are less likely to get offended or confused. Sometimes this requires imparting more significance to a sentence than you originally intended. For example, changing the sentence to “Every man who came through the glass doors had his head down, avoiding eye contact with the sinister doorman,” says more than the original sentence (why would the men avoid eye contact and not the women?). But if you can work that more meaningful, more interesting sentence in with the rest of your story, all the better.

Rephrase. Sometimes it’s feasible to rewrite the sentence in such a way that the only pronouns in it refer to someone specific. By making the doorman the subject, we can avoid assigning a pronoun to the people walking through the door: “The sinister doorman didn’t receive so much as a glance from any of the hundreds of people who walked through his glass doors each day.” This is another one that requires you to commit to inflating the meaning of the sentence.

Alternate sexes. One approach that is becoming more popular in nonfiction works is to alternate between male and female pronouns by paragraph, section, or chapter. In a new employee handbook, for example, section 1.1 might state the rules using “she,” “her,” and “hers,” and section 1.2 might state the rules using “he,” “him,” and “his.” This approach doesn’t really work in fictional narrative like our example sentence, since those pronouns refer to specific (though imaginary) people rather than hypothetical people. I should also note that Amy Einsohn, whose opinion is well-researched and should be respected, criticizes this technique as confusing (Einsohn 2006, p. 414).

“His or her.” My least favorite, yet somehow the most common: inserting “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or hers,” or even “s/he” everywhere a singular pronoun is required. While this technically solves the grammatical issues, it is cumbersome to write and even more cumbersome to read. Do it when required by law, your boss, or your own lack of creativity. Otherwise, avoid it.

Repeat the noun. You can be super-correct, super-accurate, and super-obnoxious by repeating the word or name a pronoun would refer to and not using any pronouns. “Every person who came through the glass doors had that person’s head down, avoiding eye contact with the sinister doorman.” Or, for the Facebook programmers, “Lindsey Brown also commented on Lindsey Brown’s wall post.” As you can see, this is another solution that should be used only in extreme circumstances.

Neuter. We feel bad when we accidentally refer to someone’s baby as an “it,” so naturally we shouldn’t refer to grown people as “it”s just to ease our grammatical conscience. If your audience is not the PETA board of directors, however, and you run into the singular pronoun problem when talking about cocker spaniels, it’s probably okay to use “it” if the grammatical context calls for, well, it.

For a thorough discussion of this issue and several other options for rephrasing tricky sentences to avoid having to use a gender-neutral, singular personal pronoun, see pages 412–414 of Amy Einsohn’s fabulous The Copyeditor’s Handbook.

The Spanish language has a beautiful little word that allows writers to be accurate, bias-free, and eloquent all at the same time: su. Su is a gender-neutral pronoun that can be either singular or plural, impersonal or personal.

 “Carrie Stallings just posted a link to a new article on su wall.” Try that, Mark.


Einsohn, Amy. 2006. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fogarty, Mignon. 2006. “Generic Singular Pronouns.” Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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Yes, I am going to blog about grammar

I hate blogs. But my web designer is forcing me to include an element on my website that has frequent updates, so I am writing a blog. My hope is that you can find here helpful tips and ideas for improving your own writing. That way, a) you’ll become a better writer, and b) your writing will take less time to edit and you’ll save money! Want to receive these posts in an email? Click the SUBSCRIBE link to the right.

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