A Little Grammar Rampage

Though I usually behave myself, today I reached the tipping point when I read the address on a bank statement that came in the mail. It is addressed to the Merkles in care of “The Wilson’s.” So which Wilson is this referring to? And this Wilson’s what? His house? His mail box? It should simply say Wilsons. That’s we. No apostrophe needed.

I adore grammar. Desiring to be a good citizen, I normally suppress any desire to correct others without an invitation. But this time I was sorely provoked. If you look around on advertisements, addresses, house signs, invitations, and any other place where people write words without an editor, you will see the careless misuse of the apostrophe.

My eighth-graders used to have a contest in the spring where they searched for typos of all kinds all over town. They found dozens of appalling mistakes, and the apostrophe was one of the big offenders. Once you start noticing, you will spot their misuse everywhere.

Okay, so here is the rule. Plural is not the same thing as possession. The apostrophe is not used to indicate plural except in the case of numbers, letters, and words used as words. Do you know your ABC’s? How many 9’s are in your phone number?  Your sentence has six me’s in it.  But years do not need the apostrophe: Was your dad born in the 1920s?

Names bring lots of confusion to this game called grammar. If your last name is Smith and you want to hang your name on a fence or outside your door or print it on the doormat, you certainly may. It is a free country. But you must do so at your own peril, resisting all urges to throw apostrophes around your name. So here are your options. You could hang a sign that says Smith. That is, after all, the family name. But maybe you are concerned that people know that there are many Smiths who live in this house. Then feel free (though I wouldn’t) to hang a sign that says Smiths. But do not, under any circumstances, hang a sign that says Smith’s or Smiths’ unless you plan to follow the name with a noun. If you are one lone Smith, you could write Smith’s House. If you have a house full of Smiths, you could write Smiths’ Residence. The only urge I beg you to resist is that of throwing an apostrophe on the end and leaving it hanging out there dangling in the breeze.

Now if you are one of those unfortunate folks with a family name that already ends in s, then you have a more complicated situation. Let’s say your name is Lucas or Jones. My opinion is to engrave the boulder on the edge of your yard simply with the name Lucas or Jones. Otherwise you will need to write Lucases or Joneses. And that’s weird. If you are sending out an invitation to a party, be oh-so careful with the wording.  Where is this party? At the Lucas home or the Jones home. Not the Lucas’ home and not the Jones’ home. Could be the Lucases’ home, but do you really want to go to all that trouble? Maybe say something like this: “The Jones family is throwing a party and would love to see your little fat face at the proceedings.”

And since I am clearing the air, I may as well jump up and down about one more thing. Don’t tell people that you feel badly. You may feel bad about many things, but if you feel badly, that means that your nerve endings are damaged.

Okay, I hope we are still friends after this little rampage.

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58 thoughts on “A Little Grammar Rampage

  1. Yeah, I still don’t get it!
    And here I thought I had a firm grasp on the whole thing – turns out I’ve been wrong for years!
    Did I actually make it to grammer class in 8th grade?

  2. I totally agree with you!!! THANK YOU for sharing this. Perfect post! Now if those who don’t know that they are the Smiths, not the Smith’s or Smiths’, would just read your post! I can’t tell you how many Christmas cards I received with mistakes such as these!

  3. So if your last name was Granberry. how would you pluralize it? That is the name of one of our church’s missionary families, and I do my best to compose announcements regarding the Granberry family, but sometimes the name just has to become plural….

  4. Our last name is Skocelas and it is ever so difficult to make plural. A few years ago we were dubbed “the Skocelai” at a small group gathering and it had stuck ever since!

  5. But Nancy, I remember being taught in elementary school to use apostrophes (in the appropriate places, of course, and this was way back when grammar was still rigorouly taught in government schools) to make last names plural. I’ve been confused about it for years now because I see people following the rules you outlined, but that’s not how I was taught. Have the rules changed? I adore good grammar too (just ask my kids!), but I cannot always keep up with the changes. And then one grammar book says one thing and another says something else. Sometimes I wish languages weren’t such changeable things!

    BTW, my biggest grammar pet peeve is not capitalizing “be” verbs in titles.

    Thanks for an entertaining rampage!


  6. Sigh. When I married a Higgins, I knew I was in for it. My general plan has been absolute avoidance of plural possession.

    And I laughed out loud at “fat little face”. Thanks for the rant!

  7. womanofthehouse,
    I agree that you can find many conflicting “rules” for English. Many of our rules were formed as a result of one grammarian shouting down another. Even style manuals conflict with one another. So my policy is this: when in doubt, avoid it. In other words, if you aren’t sure about something (like how to form the plural), then just figure out how to say the same thing a different (and safe) way.

  8. My personal grammar irritant is the misuse of quotation marks. They are not for emphasis!
    “same-day” dry-cleaning
    we only use “real” chicken
    we “support” our troops
    “free” checking
    Just once I want to march into a business with one of those phrases on it’s sign, pund my fist on the counter and ask, “Just what are you implying?”
    But people would think I was a loon, so I cringe and go on.

  9. I didn’t know you could use apostrophes to indicate plurals in the case of letters, numbers, and words used as words! Good thing I taught 6th grade grammar and not 8th! 🙂 I usually leave the apostrophe out in those cases and appreciate the correction!

    Bean, in the case of plural possession, the rule is you use ‘s unless the word is plural and already ends in an s. So James’s, and men’s get ‘s while students’ (The students’ desks) only get an apostrophe. At least that is what you would have learned in my classroom, but my mentor teacher across the hall just told her kids to figure it out. Who knows if they ever did!

  10. Ah, Nancy, you are a woman after my own heart. This very week I have been fantasizing about being a teacher and giving a quiz consisting solely of a list of the students’ last names and a direction to pluralize them. (Well…maybe I couldn’t resist throwing in a question or two on its/it’s and there/their/they’re!)

    I’ve even seen things like “Jone’s” where “Joneses” was meant. Style guides do differ, and in general should be used for internal consistency, but some things are pretty universally considered wrong. I’ve never seen a modern style guide that recommends apostrophes for pluralizing names, so that’s a matter that seems to have gained general agreement among authorities.

    And speaking of style guide differences, there are a couple points where the Great and Mighty Chicago Manual (all hail!) disagrees with you [my comments in brackets]:

    “To avoid confusion, lowercase letters [but not upper case] and abbreviations with two or more interior periods or with both capital and lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s.

    x’s and y’s
    M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s (or MAs and PhD’s) [but ABCs and DVDs, not ABC’s and DVD’s]”

    And from a Q&A:

    “Plurals almost never take an apostrophe. Chicago style uses an apostrophe for the plural of lowercase single letters (x’s and o’s), but for little else (for instance, we write “dos and don’ts”). Of course, if you come across a plural that would be misunderstood without an apostrophe, you should use one: for instance, in A’s and B’s, the first term would be mistaken for “As” without an apostrophe, and the second term uses the apostrophe because it would look inconsistent to style them in different ways.”

    Also to be noted: when an apostrophe comes at the beginning of a word, such as ’tis or the roaring ’20s, do use an apostrophe and not a single opening quotation mark. Unfortunately, the WordPress software turns any initial instance of ‘ into an opening single quote, which vexes me no end…er…I mean…provides me many welcome opportunities to exercise sweet-tempered forbearance. 😉

    OK, I’ll shut up now before I write twenty pages on this dearly beloved topic. Sigh…if only I could be as passionate and particular about personal piety as I am about proper punctuation!

  11. Lori, I was once at a Goodwill, waiting for some friends, and there was a sign in the electronics department that said, “Your being videotaped.” I happened to have a Sharpie in my purse….

  12. Well, I can top that, Valerie. I was in a train station once when, scratched on a plastic surface, I noticed a little graffiti that said, “Your next.”

    That’s right, I go around correcting graffiti…

  13. Rampage On!

    The other day I was buying boots for and with my sons (9 year old twins) who are just now learning English (international adoption). The saleslady said, “Oh, do you like THESE ONES?”


    Sure enough, one of the boys said, “Yes, I like THESE ONES.”

    Nails down a blackboard!

    My son was quickly corrected and thought it odd that this American woman didn’t know that ‘these ones’ is redundant.

    Oh Well.

    For those who need a nice brush up on grammar, or those who home educate and have an older student ready for a good course, I’d like to recommend a fabulous book, Our Mother Tongue: A Guide to English Grammar. I’ll be working through it myself this coming year!

  14. With the “Jones” issue, some grammar books teach that even though there are multiple people in the family, in certain contexts the family acts as a collective noun and therefore functions as a singular word. By that rule, it could be correct to say “the Jones’ house,” meaning, “the house of the Jones family.” The book says it’s also acceptable to write it as “Jones’s” – though that seems a bit clunky.

    But you are right – letters should never be addressed to “The Wilson’s.” 🙂

  15. I thought some things (nouns) were implied. Just like when you yell the word ‘go,’ ‘you,’ singular or plural, is implied. So with Smith’s, their residence is implied, since it would not be understood that you are referring to their car, or any other thing they possess. But, no problem. I don’t use it anyway. However, I had to do basic English in college because they didn’t like my overuse of commas.

    One time at a McDonald’s drive thru window there was a post that had misspelled ‘receive.’ I mentioned it to the girl at the window and the next time I drove thru it was corrected. ‘Brighten the corner where you are.’

    But for some really funny mistakes is to see things overseas written in English on signs or clothes. There was this one outdoor restaurant I visited that had you cook your own meat. The sign said “Cook yourself, Eat yourself.” Another choice one was a pair of kids’ pajamas that said ‘Sweat Dreams.’

  16. One of my pet peeves is when people write on signs:
    “Fresh” Bread
    Are they only pretending it’s fresh? They say that’s correct because it’s a direct quote – that’s them talking!
    There was a couple I heard of who went about Canada and the States correcting typos, either by permission of the owner of the typo or by stealth. And they had a blog with photos of the mistakes they found… some were ghastly. unfortunately i’ve lost the address…
    i could go on, but that might take a while. I’m a bit of a grammar freak. And my Canadian usage probably differs a bit from your American.

  17. Oh, apostrophe abuse is like slivers of wood under my fingernails! The confusion between “it’s” and “its” simply knows no end. And, don’t even get me started on “between you and I!!!” Grrr………
    As for possessives of proper names ending in an s, my first grandson is named Silas. And, so it begins…

  18. I’m so delighted to find a bunch of grammar lovers out there in blog land. Each region of the country tends to have its common and acceptable mistakes.
    Here in northern Idaho it is quite the norm for folks to say, “Where’s the butter at?” But down South I hear tell they say, “What’s you fixin’ on doing?”

  19. One of my favorites among quirky local curiosities is when someone revisiting a conversation (usually a juicy one) says: “And I says to him, I says, …” But better yet is when it’s contracted to simply, “And so then *he* said-he-said…”

    Valerie, I’m going to have to get me a copy of the CSM. This is fun, all you ladies! I thought *I* knew my punctuation, but all y’all are playing hardball now.

  20. As an English teacher at a local community college, my rant would be too long. I have come across enough spelling errors about human beans and the character’s roll to last me a long time.

    I always teach it like this:

    Singular noun possessive = ‘s (The dog’s tail).

    IF you add an “s” to make the word plural AND show ownership = s’ (The three dogs’ tails).

    However, keep in mind we have pesky German words in our language, where the word structure itself changes to show plurality. Thus, you are NOT adding the “s” to make it plural, so you have:


    Some excellent grammar books include “The Least You Should Know About English, “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” and “How Not To Write,” not to mention the excellent classic “Elements of Style.”

  21. If you’ve got money to burn, go for a subscription to the online edition. I have one through work, but if I didn’t, I’d probably spring for it. Another online tool I find indispensable is the Visual Thesaurus. You can test-run without a subscription, but the full version is way more funner. And speaking of the funner things in life, I’m all for local flava and colloquialisms and creative stretching of the rules when appropriate! 😉

  22. I am just reading through “Eats Shoots and Leaves” for a second time with my kids. You and Lynn Truss are indentical twins separated at birth, I think. If you haven’t read it, you don’t need to, unless you want to feel some grammatical commeraderie, as she thinks exactly as you do.
    Oh my goodness I am scanning my comment now for errors, and feeling so self-conscious!

  23. Random totally off-topic comment:
    I just read a horrible review of one of your books I was planning on purchasing on amazon. I just wanted to let you know that the review I read made me totally excited about reading the book!! (Although sad that the woman writing has such a distorted understanding of being a woman.) In fact, I was so excited that I googled your name and just had to leave a comment here thanking you for the books that I’m so looking forward to reading!


    PS: please excuse the bad grammar in my comment – I live in Asia so I speak Engrish now. ;o)

  24. In Pennsylvania, where I lived for a while… it drove me nuts to hear:

    “Do you want to GO WITH?” as an presumed sentence.
    “The laundry [or whatever] NEEDS DONE.”

    Nobody ever seemed to know this was not correct, even teachers.

    I had to bite my tongue a lot, but have since been duly humbled by my own grammar shortcomings, so I am not quite as bothered as I might be.. LOL

    Anna in NH

  25. Nancy, that Southern phrase around here might come out more like, ‘Whatcha fittin’ ta do?” 🙂 I certainly had to learn a new language when moving here! Loving languages, I take it as such and am much amused. 🙂 Regional dialect exists in English just as it does in other languages. It didn’t help my introduction any, though, when locals explained to me that “fittin'” was just slang for “fixing”, but eventually, I figured out that “fixing” meant something along the lines of “preparing” or “considering”. 🙂 Prepositions at the end of sentences are very commonly used here as well.

    I LOVE _Eats Shoots and Leaves_! My husband thinks it’s hilarious just to watch me read it–that anyone could find grammar so riotous!

  26. Thank you so much for this. It is one of my biggest pet peeves. Seeing the ugliness of bad grammar in public fuels me to teach my children with more fervor.

  27. Valerie, I am so happy that you give the nod to local flava. I am simply not going to give up my adopted “needs done, needs fixed” construction in informal speech. I adopted it when I married a western Pennsylvanian, and I say it because I like to.

    Of course, I’d never write it in any kind of formal writing. I think Anna’s right that most people out here don’t know it’s wrong.

  28. Thank you Nancy! I am delighted that you went ahead and addressed this. The most distressing sign I have read was this: “Grocery’s” Perhaps you could write a little addendum on using it’s vs. its?

  29. I am married into an unfortunate (Rollins) family of college graduates who refuse to add an additional es to their name when pluralizing no matter what I tell them Valerie told me.

  30. Okay, I’ve been laughing so hard at that Cake Wrecks site that I’m crying. Not merely tears in the eyes, you understand, but actual whimpers and sobs of mirth.

  31. Wow – I am quite relieved to see that I’m not the only one who gets slightly peevish about incorrect grammar! Though it is sadly ironic, because I often catch myself in grammatical little faux pas! (Speaking of which, is that even spelled correctly? That would be too ironic…) One thing I always find amusing is the misuse of your/you’re, were/we’re, their/there/they’re. Oh, and speaking of grammatical little issues that seem to be native to certain parts of the country – I am afraid that “seen” is terribly misused here in western Michigan. My brother-in-law in particular can often be heard saying “I seen this truck the other day…”, “I seen him coming down the road”, “We seen it over there…” and things of that grammatically hideous nature. And yet, as I said earlier, I myself am prone to my fair share of grammatical goof-ups, so I really can’t say much at all!

    Thanks for the post, fun as always!

  32. Thank you for the lesson, but to help me understand the passion could you please explain the why. I believe we should love the language God has given and strive to use it well. Language can be so beautiful when one knows how to use it well. However in light of the fact that rules of grammar are conflicting, as you stated in the response part of the post, we would be wise to keep ourselves from getting our shirts in a bind over the way people write. I know Nancy that you love Grammar. I have read one of the books you wrote on the subject. I confess I do not share this detailed love of the language, though I am constantly frustrated by my own struggles in this area and work to better my skills. But I am surprised at how agitating poor spelling is to so many people. I thought I was a little embarrassed about my bad spelling before but I have had to rethink if I should be writing on blogs in light of how offensive bad spelling is to so many. Who knows what horrid mistakes I am making right now? Though I read a lot and pay attention to my spelling, the problems is I don’t know I am doing it. That is why I do it. It is just like some sins…only to my knowledge this is not a sin. So when God has given one person the light, or passion for grammar, and not another, how then should we live? Any feed back would be sweetly accepted. 🙂 Thank you.

  33. Have any of you seen the blog of unnecessary quotation marks? Mrs. Wilson, I think you would really enjoy it.

  34. Crystal,

    I’m sure we would all advocate grace to one another in non-essentials (like grammar).

    BUT, we should all be striving for excellence even in areas we have no natural passion. Like me and the laundry…

    The point of grammar and spelling is clear, effective communication. Small errors can mean big misunderstandings and so there is an Order of Grammarian Knights out there fighting the battle to keep the language comprehensible. Not all of us are ordained and gifted to fight in it but we ought to be supporting them and sympathizing with their mission. And we ought to learn from them whenever they teach us where we have fallen into carelessness.

    And, of course, Nancy (and Valerie!) is full of grace for all the error makers even if she is not full of grace for the errors themselves.

  35. Thank you for this post.
    I am from England and I am bewildered by the use of the words bring and take in the United States. After twenty years it still sounds strange that people want to bring things I think they shoukd be taking.

  36. Too fun!

    I’m a grammar freak, too. It does have its downside, though. It takes me ages to send text messages because I just can’t bear to use all the horrible abbreviations! Is that totally weird, or what?

    In Him


    PS. Kate – your comments on the Jones’ home would be correct Down Under. (Sorry, Valerie!)

  37. I keep wanting to shorten “grammar rampage” to “grampage.” I think that’s what I’m gonna call it from now on when I need to tackle some big editing project with particular ferocity.

  38. Mandi, Thanks for your counsel. It is so true that Nancy and Valerie are gracious in my experience. I think my problem is that I don’t understand the jokes very well. And that is probably because I do not understand what all the punctuations communicate well enough to understand the humor. Give me some time and a few good grammar books and hopefully I will realize how funny it all is. Maybe someday I will even notice a sandwich board that in full of miss used quotation marks and think, “you have got to be kidding me!” Till then I am bowing out of this discussion. Have fun! 🙂

  39. I am dealing with past participles in the grammar world. “She had came with me…” or “They had came…”
    Some how the person I keep correcting doesn’t get it. I tried to explain that you wouldn’t say “She come with me…”
    If it’s in past tense keep it there and don’t use a present verb.

  40. Crystal (if you’re still reading this thread!) I would say that the lazy language-users should be exhorted to strive for excellence, but the grammar cop vigilantes should also be exhorted to resist going around the blogosphere sneering at and correcting others’ grammar goofs. (A public sign, on the other hand, seems fair game to me!)

  41. Crystal (if you’re still reading this thread!) I would say that the lazy language-users should be exhorted to strive for excellence, but the grammar cop vigilantes should also be exhorted to resist going around the blogosphere sneering at and correcting others’ grammar goofs. (A public sign, on the other hand, seems fair game to me!)

  42. Yes, those kinds of grammatical errors drive both my hubbie and me slightly mad, especially when we even find them in the British press and on the television AND most recently on a napkin in Starbucks, no less. It read, “Less napkins, less waste…” or something like that…(aarrrrgh) Oh well.

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