December 12, 2010

PSA: How to Make Surnames Plural When Addressing and Signing Holiday Cards

Most of us have to make other people's surnames plural only once a year, when we address and sign holiday cards. Most of us fail pitifully, even with our OWN surnames, so it is fortunate it doesn't matter one bit in any sort of "will cause children to starve" or "will worsen the state of the environment/economy" sense. But if you would LIKE to get it right, I am here to help.

Here is my first and best technique: AVOIDANCE. If you write it "The _____ family," you can put their surname unaltered where the line is and be done with it: "The Sampson family." "The James family." "The Moss family." And of course you could also write "Jim, Melanie, Caden, Olivia, and Isabella Sampson" and be done with it that way, too, but goodness, that is a lot of writing, and also sometimes I am not entirely sure I have all the first names straight.

If you choose to avoid avoidance, we will begin with the easiest: straightforward surnames such as Sampson. If you want to address the envelope to the entire household of Sampsons, it's a simple plural like cat/cats and you add S at the end: "The Sampsons."
  • NOT: The Sampson's, which makes no sense.
  • NOT: The Sampsons', which is a structure that would need to be followed by a word telling us what it is they are the owners of, such as a boat or a cat. You might be able to justify writing it The Sampsons' if you argued that "Residence" was implied, but I'd save that iffy excuse for if you mess it up accidentally.

Mid-level difficulty next: surnames ending in S, such as James. If you want to address the envelope to the entire household of Jameses, it's the regular plural for words ending in S, like bus/buses: you add ES, and it's "The Jameses."
  • NOT: The James', which makes no sense.
  • NOT: The Jameses'; see The Sampsons', above.
  • NOT: The Jamesses.

Highest difficulty last: surnames ending in double-S, such as Moss. This is the same as surnames ending in S, but the doubleness of the S throws people off: it's "The Mosses," just exactly as with dress/dresses and kiss/kisses.
  • NOT: The Moss', which makes no sense.
  • NOT: The Mosses'; see The Sampsons', above.


If you are feeling confused, you can take comfort in the fact that you are obviously in the majority. If you want it boiled down to something simpler, remember this one thing: NO APOSTROPHES. Got it? NO APOSTROPHES. Not in your own name, either: sign it "With warm holiday wishes from the Jameses," not "the James's" or "the James' " or "the Jameses'," or, heaven help us, "The Jame's." Why? Because NO APOSTROPHES, that's why. We are only making things PLURAL (for more than one person in the household), NOT contracting words or discussing who owns what.

But again, my choice is addressing it to "The James family" and signing it "The Thistle family." Then it's no apostrophes AND no plurals. This also helped me with a former acquaintance whose family's surname was Spear, and who got very pissy each year when cards arrived addressed to "The Spears" (which is CORRECT) and she would say, "It's SPEAR, it's SPEAR, it's not like Britney!!" So I addressed my card to "The Spear family" and therefore did not get rebuked for being RIGHT.

48 comments:

Stimey said...

Awesome PSA. A lot of people need to hear "no apostrophe" repeated over and over. I am a big fan of "The _____ Family." Considering my married last name is one of those terribly confusing ones, so I find this information terribly pertinent.

Jill said...

From an editor: THANK YOU.

Superjules said...

THANK YOU FOR DOING THIS. Sometimes I feel alone in my battle against the excess apostrophes of the world.

Bitts said...

I am one of those bitter, petty people who CRINGE when I see this mistake, enshrined in perpetuity, on the lovely photo Christmas cards I receive, AS WELL AS on the laser-cut boulders, personalized welcome mats, and magnetic mailbox wrappers THROUGHOUT THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING WORLD.

I readily admit I am a grammar geek. I am, however, also a Big Scrooge about mass-mailed grammatical mistakes.
JEEBUS ON A CRACKER! NO APOSTROPHES! /end rant

La said...

THANK YOU. My last name ends in an "e" and my sister-in-law has a particular fondness for signing everything (including pre-printed greeting cards - do companies not edit these days?) with "Love, the ____e's." It drives me BATTY.

Jordan said...

Ah, but the modern complication: families with more than one surname! (i.e. the mother/wife has a different surname than the father/husband and/or children [apparently I like slashes]).

My mother did not change her name when she got married, and my brother and I have her last name. It drove her nuts with righteous feminist anger when we would get things that assumed my father's surname was all of ours ("To the Wrights") or that my father had our surname ("To the Pauls"), or any variations on the above. In fact, I knew almost no families growing up where all members had the same last name.

What then, O Wise and Glorious Swistle? Does one just go the 'all first names' route? (i.e. "To C-, D-, D-, and Jordan" in my family's case?) Inquiring minds that appreciate grammar and etiquette want to know!

Erica said...

I have SO! MANY! grammar pet peeves but the superfluous apostrophe is right at the top of the list.

I vote that anyone with improper apostrophe usage automatically gets negative 50 points on the Swistle score card.

Amanda said...

Jordan - I address cards with a family such as the ones you've described: To the Wright/Paul Family" It may not be how they address themselves but I'm covering all my bases.

Swistle said...

Jordan- I would write "The Paul/Wright family." Or I would ask your mother what would please her, and I would do that.

Caitlin said...

Jordan, I didn't change my name when I got married either, and we don't have any kids, but variations I am okay with are: Both our names. The Smith/Jones Family. The Smith-Jones Family. The Smith-Joneses*. Etc.

I have some friends who are married with different last names, and they gave their kids the father's last name. I usually address things to them as Jane Jones and Bill Smith and Family.

*Wasn't it DARING of me to chose Jones to pluralize in a comment on this post?!

Christina said...

Perfect PSA!

On the envelopes I do Mr. & Mrs. Bob James or The James. Inside the cards I write out all of their names (ie: Bob, Sue, Bobby, and Susy...)

Chez Bacon said...

Thank you! This kills me, every year. Where did the apostrophe idea even start?

Also, my maiden name was Coleman and we occasionally got mail addressed to "The ColemEn."
THE COLEMEN.

Bitts said...

@Chez Bacon, I am laughing rather loudly at the ColemEn. It sounds like a 50's bee-bop group: Presenting ... Bacon and the ColemEn!
HILARIOUS! Love it!!

Cari said...

I love you for posting this. Incorrect grammar drives me insane; however, I do like to read letters and catch the mistakes. :)

Jordan said...

Thank you everyone! Now if only our card-senders in past years had been so astute...

Also, @Chez Bacon, I am laughing so hard at the ColemEn!

Swistle said...

Chez Bacon- "The Colemen"??? AHA HA HA HA HAHA HA HA!! That is excellent, excellent stuff.

Josefina said...

Hola! As a PSA, Mexican surnames ending in "-ez" (Sanchez, Gonzalez, Rodriguez, etc.) are pluralized with an "-es" at the end, also. I only mention because I did not know how to pluralize my own surname and had to look it up which made me feel very silly, indeed.

jen(melty) said...

Chez Bacon - I am laughing loudly here... I bet whoever did that thought they were sooo clever.

So what about names where it would be awkward, say if it ended in a Z and technically I suppose "es" is appropriate but it's weird because the name ends in "etz" This is where I go for "The Blank Family" and always feel cheesy doing it. But it seems that this year I got a lot of those where I've never gotten that before.. I got a lot of "& family" last year.

Josefina said...

Oops, I didn't realize I attempted to add a PSA TO a PSA. I think that breaks thirty rules of blog commenting.

But still, "Sanchezes." Apparently.

Swistle said...

Josefina- YES, good one!

Jen (melty)- Yes, what Josefina said, so if the surname is Metz, it's "The Metzes."

Tara said...

I don't think I could adore this post more. It's awesome. I posted the link on Facebook so that all of my friends could read it and understand why APOSTROPHES ARE NOT NECESSARY! :) Thanks for posting!

jen(melty) said...

Oh I know it's supposed to be 'es' but it's so weird to say! I wanted to write Metzeses just to mess with them :)

lifeofadoctorswife said...

Holy pickles I love you Swistle. I am a huge grammar/usage FREAK and it drives me batty to get cards with the inevitable "Love from the Johnson's" or - MUCH worse - "Love from the Jone's."

GAH.

d e v a n said...

I am a big fan of The ____ family. Easy and mistake free.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

LOVE this post! (and "ColemEn"? Hysterical!)

Anonymous said...

my husband and i have different last names, and i can excuse those who don't know this and send cards to the "husbandslastnames." i can't, however, excuse those who KNOW that husband and i do not share a last name, and (still) passive-aggressively send cards in that manner. if you don't agree that i've not taken husband's last name that is fine, but i prefer to be called by my own name. really. i also HATE "mr and mrs husband's full first and last name."
even if i had taken hubby's last name, i most certainly did not take his first. that is an old tradition that needs to die.

Colleen said...

Amen, Swistle. And I agree with the commenter who said there should be a point deduction for improper use of commas for the Christmas cards.

Melissa H said...

I am typically stumped by my in laws, the Fernandez Family (which is how I address their cards). I suppose it would be Fernandezes or Fernandezs but both look so stupid we've developed our own in-family plural and they are the Fernandi. Doesn't that sound a lot better? :)

Shari said...

Swistle, how dare you deny me my entertainment over apostrophe use? It amuses me to no end. This is certainly useful, however...it would be nice if all family members could get our FIRST names correct. That would save some teeth gnashing.

Swistle said...

Anon- OMG RIGHT?? My (late) MIL used to address things to me as Mrs. Paul Thistle. I haaaaaated that. I know she probably learned it as "the proper way" in school a million years ago so I TRIED to feel accepting and merciful, but the symbolism of that format is awful. AWFUL!

Swistle said...

Melissa H.- EXCELLENT solution!

Maggie said...

I was full of Christmas Cheer when I ordered my cards from Tiny Prints and saw that they have a similar Do Not Use Apostrophes You Idiots tutorial on their designing page. !!! Also I want to die every time I visit my parents and pass the house that has a huuuuuuge wooden sign announcing "THE PETERSON'S".

Nicole said...

I have a different last name from my husband, and while I do not go nuts if addressed to "Nicole Hislastname" I do hate it when I get "Mrs. Hisfirstname Hislastname". Usually I just address mail to, say, "Paul and Swistle" - just the first names of the adults of the house, unless I know that they are "Paul and Swistle Thistle".

Anonymous said...

My goodness you are patient. I would have dropped Ms.SPEAR from my Christmas card list the first year she got pissy about it.

Stephanie Sharples Francis said...

A to the MEN, Swistle and thank you thank you thank you. There are so many apostrophes these days! Why are apostrophes so cool?

(I absolutely 100% instantly dropped a daycare off my list because when I visited they had "Teacher's Birthday's" on the bulletin board and the "ILLEGAL USE OF APOSTROPHE!!!!" screams from my head almost came out my mouth. I don't feel badly about it either. IT'S NOT HARD.)

Anyway, thank you!

Bea said...

This is the time of year when I mark essays on Harry Potter, which I mostly enjoy, EXCEPT for the part (in every essay) where Harry has to endure mistreatment from the Dursley's. *shudder*

Missy ~ said...

Thank you! This drives me nuts as well. Our last name is similar to Timones so looks ridiculous (and difficult to pronounce) when you add es, so always go with "the Timones family". Last year, one of my friends addressed our card to the Timoneseseseseseses. Hilarious!

bethy said...

Thanks for the Smith/Jones Family idea--I was stuck for my friend who kept her maiden name but her husband and son share a last name. What about, though, my friend who hyphenated (Sally Smith-Jones), while her husband and son have just the father's last name (Dan and Benny Jones)? Still with the slash? Or with couples where the wife hyphenated?

Swistle said...

Bethy- Is there any way you could pick a fight with that family so you wouldn't have to mail anything to them?

If you REFUSE to be reasonable and cut off the friendship, then I would address the envelope like this:

Sally Smith-Jones
Dan Jones
Benny Jones
address line 1
address line 2

Even though Dan and Benny share a surname, it looks weird to have them share a line. If Benny had a sister, though, I'd make that third line "Benny and Sarah Jones," because by the time you're at a third line of names I think it makes sense again and stops looking weird. Or I might skip the children and just address it to their parents. OR I might do this:

Sally Smith-Jones and Dan Jones
Benny Jones
address line 1
address line 2

Spouses share a line, children on next line (or omitted). That's the method I'd use for same-sex couples, too, unless their names were very long and they NEEDED a line each, in which case I'd go with the first format: one spouse on the first line, one spouse on the second line, children on the third line. In opposite-sex couples, the woman's name goes first; for a same-sex couple I'd go alphabetical.

ccr in MA said...

Thank you for caring about this issue. I feel like an unheard minority so often on things like this. Yes! It matters! And it's simple!

Whew.

Elsha said...

Excellent post! So many people need to read this. I usually go with the "Smith family" technique. It's just easier. Also, for my one card with multiple surnames (my grandmother who shares a house with two of my aunts and one of my cousins) I addressed it to Her Name and family. Just throw that "and" in there and you only have to get one name right!

Anonymous said...

I didn't change my name when I got married. Let's say my husband's last name is Smith.
When we got married, my husband's very good friend and his wife, both of whom I love dearly, gave us a really nice, heavy-duty doormat that says.... The Smith's on it. THE SMITH'S.

We didn't have the heart to tell them, and now it's on our front porch as kind of an inside joke.

However.
Aside from the fact that I didn't change my name and so there is really only ONE Smith in this household, the WORST part is that my husband happened to look at the website of the manufacturer and WOULD YOU BELIEVE that the sample mats on their website are spelled that way?? As in, they are suggesting to their customers that "The Smith's" is CORRECT...!!!

*stab stab stab stab*

Swistle said...

Anon- OMG. I have seen catalogs like that, and they cause my brain to short-circuit.

Melissa H said...

So voice of minor dissent here--for cards to the family it's DEFINITELY The Smiths but for a doormat and/or wooden sign outside the home I believe The Smith's can be appropriate because the mat/sign is marking the home and the word "home" is implied by the item and its location. So the sign is really saying "This is the Smith's Home" but that is a lot to engrave so you get "The Smith's".

And I can see how I may feel slightly defensive here because in 7th grade I personally routered and painted and sanded and finished a lovely wooden sign that says "The Smith's" (except with our much more uncommon last name). I also think "The Smiths" would be appropriate but I'm not wholeheartedly anti apostrophe in this case.

And oh my gosh I can't believe how many WORDS I just wrote about this ;)

bethy said...

Swistle--thank you for acknowledging how difficult it is to send Christmas cards to those crazy hyphenaters! I love you, and I respect your right to do whatever you want with your last name, but SHEESH, how do I send your family a card? At least now I know there wasn't some easy standard protocol that I somehow missed :)

peytons.email.is said...

Melissa—even if it is marking that this is the dwelling of the Smiths, it should be Smiths'. I mean, in this case, it's kind of okay, since there is only one Smith living there, but it's still all messed up.

As someone with a different last name than my husband and children, I don't mind when things are addressed as a whole to the family as just "The Joneses." My husband still answers the phone as "Jones Residence." (I avoid the issue on the answering machine by say, "You've reached R. and P.") But I get really irritated when I am the only addressee, either in writing or verbally (verbally more than in writing), as Mrs./Sister Jones. Every Sunday I get a thank you from the pulpit by whomever is conducting as "Sister Jones." One day I'm going to snap and correct her in front of everyone.

elckd said...

This is the FIRST year, in almost 2 decades of addressing Christmas Cards, that I have done it correctly, thanks to this post. I send 125, so I think it's fair to consider this truly a public service on your part. Thank you!

Alexicographer said...

Way, way late to the discussion here but I was finishing my hot cocoa and found my way to the archives. So here I am.

I would manage the Sally Smith-Jones and Dan Jones problem by addressing the envelope to the Sally Smith-Jones and Dan Jones family (using an "and," as there, or perhaps a slash), thereby avoiding the second line. But, yes: challenging.

Count me, weirdly, among the "our generation" human beings (apparently a count of 1 in this category where I find myself) comfortable with being Mrs. John Smith, even had I not taken Mr. Smith's last name when I married him. My understanding is that the arguably antiquated Mrs. label correctly means "wife of" and thus is only appropriately used as Mrs. John Smith and never as Mrs. Alexi Smith, much less Mr. John Smith and Mrs. Alexi Cographer. So if you "Mrs." me, well, you are using an antiquated label and identifying me (only) as my husband's wife, but then again, I am his wife.

On the other hand, recognizing that many others object to this, and for obvious reasons given its non-parallel standing (i.e. there is no "husband of" prefix), I tend to go with the Smith Family label, except sometimes for individuals of my mother's generation.