December 29, 2014

Who's bench?

I see pluralized family names misspelled all the time. People just love to put an apostrophe in front of the plural -s: they sign their letters as coming from "the Miller's" rather than "the Millers." It is much rarer, though, to see a family  name misspelled on a donor plaque like this one.

The rules are very simple, actually: An apostrophe is used mainly in one of the following two situations:

  1. reduction: when a letter is omitted (I have not --> I haven't) 
  2. genitive case (possessive -s): when the concept of possession is expressed (Harry --> Harry's bench)

Unlike the possessive -s the plural -s is added without an apostrophe (one cat, two dogs). The only exception (apart from set expressions like o'clock) are words that are a abbreviations or just letters, especially if they are spelled with uppercase letters (she holds two Ph.D.'s, I got four A's), but not using an apostrophe is also acceptable in these cases (she holds two Ph.D.s).

When both concepts are combined (possession and plual), the plural ending is added first. Since the noun then ends on -s (the Millers), the genitive is typically marked with just an apostrophe (the Millers' house), however, adding another -s is also acceptable, resulting in the sequence -s's (the Millers's). What is not acceptable is what you see in the picture above: using just -s to express plurality and possession.

  • Harry Miller has a house --> Harry Miller's house
  • The Miller family has a house (The Millers have a house) -->  the Millers' house OR the Millers's house, NOT the Miller's house
Final note: When the plural of a noun does not end on an -s (children), the genitive -s is added in the same manner as in the singular (the children's house). Oh, and while we're at it, the genitive interrogative pronoun is spelled whose, never who's (whose house). Who's is a contracted form (who is), not a genitive.

For more fun with apostrophes, see the blog Apostrophe Abuse.

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