Adams, Adamses, Adams’s

Penny at podium_croppedCan we agree on something? Can we agree not to form plurals with apostrophes?

Now this may not seem like a genealogical topic, but making plurals does come up in genealogy, because it comes up in all writing. And sometimes in family histories we need to make plurals of proper names. Here are the basic rules:

  1. To make a plural of most nouns, add an s: apples, pears, plums.
  2. If the noun ends with an s, ch, x, or z sound, add es: buses, beaches, faxes.
  3. If a noun ends with y, change the y to i and add es: babies, pennies. (Exception: if the noun ends with ey, just add s: monkeys.)

Of course, because our language is English, there are some irregular plurals, such as men, women, and children.

What about proper names? Simply apply rules 1 and 2, adding either s or es:

The Strattons will be here for the reunion.
The Adamses lived in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Do not invoke rule 3, however, as you do not want to change the spelling of a proper name. Thus the plural of Kennedy is Kennedys, not Kennedies.

Please note that you have seen no apostrophes in these plurals.

But let’s turn now to possessives. If you’re showing that someone owns something, that’s where your apostrophe will come into play. Follow several simple rules:

If a noun is singular, even if it ends in s, add an apostrophe plus s:

Charles Dickens’s works are among my favorites.
Kansas’s legislature is voting today.
NEHGS’s headquarters is in Boston.

If you are making a possessive of a plural noun that ends in s, add just an apostrophe.

 All the male descendants’ names are Nathaniel.
That was the Washingtons’ home.

If you have a plural of a proper name that ends in ch, s, x, or z and need to make it possessive also, don’t overthink it! Make the plural first, and then add the apostrophe, even though it might look funny:

The Finches’ farm
The Adamses’ house
The Rodriguezes’ ancestry

If your surname is Brooks, please do not sign your greeting cards “Love, the Brooks’.” You are the Brookses and should call yourself that or “the Brooks family,” and you do not need an apostrophe unless you are telling me that you own something. If you are sending me an invitation to a party at your house, ask me to come to “The Brookses’ house,” not the Brook’s or Brooks’s or Brooks’ house.

At times you will want to reword what you’re saying to avoid something really awkward, such as “There are five Moseses in my father’s line.” Better to say, “There are five males named Moses in my father’s line.” Or instead of “All of the Papadopolouses are here,” say “All of the Papadopolous family are here.” Hmmm. Or would you say all of the family is here? What do you think?

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

65 thoughts on “Adams, Adamses, Adams’s

  1. You made my day! I learned these rules way back in country school, and it is frustrating for me to see a road sign with a “plural” apostrophe!

  2. Please send a copy of this to Apple, as iPhones and iPads are programmed to add apostrophes in inappropriate places.

  3. You made my day too. Now if you can get people, in their histories, to use ‘its’ as a possessive instead of ‘it’s,’ which is, of course, the contraction of ‘it is.’

  4. Oh thank you! I’ve been muttering about this for years. I was taught the proper way, but I wonder if today’s (see!) teachers even know the rules.

  5. Bravo! An excellent reminder. I’ve been seeing so many misuses of apostrophes I was beginning to question my original understanding of its use.

  6. I do not believe the teachers take the time to thoroughly teach these rules anymore, if they teach them at all. Besides “its” and “it’s,” other frequently misused words are “there,” they’re,” and “their.”

    1. Thanks for a great post!

      As a linguistics teacher, my English teaching candidates all plead for a Modern English Grammar class, to no avail. All of the administrative personnel are monolinguals. Teachers in English classrooms across the U.S. are teaching English to MANY second language learners of English (check out the US Immigration stats), who use GRAMMAR to connect their first language to English, and so need grammar explanations. Administration doesn’t GET it because they’ve never experienced the demands of “bilinguality.” Expect things to get worse before they get worse?

  7. I taught these rules to my fourth graders, but there is no guarantee that they remember them now that they are forty! Many people need a refresher. Thank you!

    1. I salute you! I’m a retired newspaper copy editor and my teeth are worn out from grinding after reading comments on various sites where the public’s grammar is atrocious. How many times have I whispered under my breath, “If there was only one thing taught by fourth grade teachers, it should be grammar!”
      How many rural sign posts say, “The Johnson’s”? I reply in my head, “Which Johnson’s what?”
      Or when I hear, “The Collins came for dinner,” I think, which one?
      Thank you, thank you, thank you, Pam.
      Signed, Grandma Grammar

  8. This whole subject is a sad commentary on the state of English grammar, but I’l afraid you’re tilting at windmills.

  9. This grammar problem has worsened in the past years concomitant with the deterioration of our school system. My daughters referred to me as the “grammar police.” My pet peeve is “off of” which is used by even so-called literate adults. It’s in our newspapers and said by broadcast news people. There. I feel better now!

    1. Mr. Brooks, you have ended your sentense with a preposition. It should read:”…the names with which they were born.” All in good fun!

      1. At one time, schoolchildren were taught that a sentence should never end with a preposition. However, this is a philosophy actually associated with Latin grammar. While many aspects of Latin have made their way into the English language, this particular grammar rule is not suited for modern English usage. ~ from English Grammar Rules & Usage

        1. I think the issue is one we don’t think about often, and that is that English users essentially have two languages: a spoken, constantly changing one, and a formal, very structured, written one. (To demonstrate this duality in some languages who have both written and oral language, many people who speak other languages in this country cannot read or write in it – hence all the errors in foreign language signage that is found).

          Our fluid English grammar and its very large vocabulary can be used as casually or as specifically as the context requires. However, the more formal the purpose, the more important the grammar is. We may leave prepositions hanging in speech, but in writing, if that is done, it creates a conflicting structure that complicates meaning and which can’t be easily explained retroactively for a reader who comes after. English is the world’s business language because it is explicit and specific and so communicates the message very precisely. We can depend on speech habits from monitoring those who use English around us, but we need to recognize and know English grammar to be able to use it effectively for all the other contexts. This is one of the reasons most people can’t write well: they don’t know grammar structure, and they don’t practice writing.

  10. In re the last paragraph lines beginning “Or instead … “, {&, yes, I know I put the comma outside the quote mark, as per UK style because I appreciate the logic by which the quote marks are a necessary part of the interior digression, after which a pause marked by the comma is needed}:

    (1) “the family IS” — for me that references the unity of the group,
    (2) the family members ARE — references the individuals of the group,

    and that is how I use them.

    But, again in the UK, “ARE” is considered necessarily correct in both instances, as I continually stumble over it as a reader of The Times and The Guardian (despite their other atrocious spelling errors that appear in their online copy).

    (I’m sure some one will correct me if I’ve gotten this UK “thingie” backwards.)

    I do believe that such cases like this, in particular, represent the constant to-and-fro of the spoken language and the written language. And the spoken variants will usually prevail. I mean, have you tried to read the Fowler brother’s classic The King’s English recently? (Of course, Oxford U. P. makes a good dollar every year on its trade paperback reprint.)

    Your awkwardness comment is important in itself, as it is a way to get writers to understand the need to rewrite and rewrite. If it’s mushy gobbledygook coming out of your mouth when you read it out loud to yourself, than it is functionally incomprehensible on paper.

    RE-read ALOUD and then rewrite – rewrite – rewrite.

    Hey, how about a laminated “Practical Genealogist” two-sided sheet on “Writeing Gud in Genealogee”? Give it away FREE with the purchase of any other sheet.


  11. As a retired editor who started out as a proofreader, all I can say (fervently) is thank you! I can almost bear signs in grocery stores that say things like “Local Carrot’s on sale” but sink into despair when I see something like “VHS’ Mason Papers” (where VHS stands for Virginia Historical Society) or “the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America” in a genealogy magazine. Judging from the other comments you are getting, there are a lot of us out here who are grinding our teeth!

  12. Thanks for adding this smallest but definitely most difficult anomaly of the English language to my “must copy” list. Like the dictionary and thesaurus it should be kept close-by. My Mom taught Latin and my Dad taught English, but he always deferred to her in spelling, grammar, punctuation and definitions. My little joke is that I wrapped her like a mummy so she could turn over in her grave more easily. I am afraid, however, that “incidentses” has taken the place of “irregardless”.

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you !!!! Well needed (sadly) and well said.
    Best post I’ve read in a long time. Kudos!!! Maybe next a blurb about “mothers-in-law” vs the dreaded “mother-in-laws”?

    And Bud, I’m called “the grammar granny” both at home and the office; you’re in good company! Keep it up: how else can we fight it but one at a time.

    Perhaps we should start an underground or an occupy-something. Haha!

  14. sounds like a convention of English Majors !

    My X wife, an English Major, always signed our Xmas cards “..ates’ ” as opposed to “..ateses” What say you? s/ retired Mechanical Engineer 😉

  15. Bravo, Penny! Your explanation is way more simple than any other I’ve seen on my number one grammar pet peeve. A copy of this post should be sent to every American elementary and high school, also to every restaurant, sign painter and billboard company.

    My number two pet peeve is spoken, not written – the morphing of the word “to” into “tuh”. Am I the only one who cringes every time supposedly-educated people like newscasters, lecturers, and even the president utter the phrase “going tuh do” [this or that] or “we went tuh” [insert place]?

      1. Joanne, “Fridee” is a new one on me, but then I never go to the end of town where the “hot” restaurants and such are located, places where “cute” spelling is the norm. Nor have I seen that spelling in any TV commercials, but now that you’ve made me aware of it, I’m sure I will soon! ;-}

        1. I really have a problem with “must of” instead of “must have”…..and “honing in on” something instead of “homing in on” it is enough to make me tear my hair….

      2. Joanne, ignore my previous comment about “Fridee”. I should know better than to comment early in the morning before the caffeine has kicked in…

        Yes, pronouncing the “day” in the days of the week as “dee” grates on my nerves, too, as does “thuh” instead of “the”. I’m not advocating a return to the biblical “thee”…or maybe I am if that’s what it takes! Anyway, the mispronunciation that sets my teeth on edge the most since becoming an accidental transplant to Oklahoma is “MiamUH” instead of “MiamEE” for the town in northeast OK. Oddly, the city by the same name in Florida is always pronounced “Miamee”, so I have no clue why Okies turned the “i” on the end into “uh” for one and not the other.

          1. Christopher, I never noticed until now how close “Miamuh” is to southwest “Missourah”. Of course some early settlers and their speech patterns would’ve come from there! Being a genealogist, I have no problem with an “incorrect” pronunciation based on migration. Thank you!

        1. And please, the western state is NOT Nev-AWE-duh — the a in the middle is short, as in apple.
          And speaking of states, the Pacific Northwestern state is Washington, not Washington State. The little city on the East Coast is Washington, D.C. It’s not difficult to say D.C., but I digress.
          Primarily, I’d like to say, YES!, to this column. Plurals and possessives should be part of children’s understanding. They may grow up to be sign makers!
          For a good read, I suggest “Confessions of a Comma Queen,” a very informative grammar book that is written with humor. I highly recommend it.

  16. Loved this thread but I’m not seeing anything about pluralizing numbers with just a plain, good old ‘s’………… 1950s the 40s How did we ever start using a possessive apostrophe to pluralize numbers?

    1. An apostrophe would be proper in referring to the ’50s, etc. NOT the 50’s, which I see in every printed medium.

  17. As a former English teacher, I appreciate these reminders. Apostrophe misuse is one of my pet peeves when it comes to usage–and it’s really so simple. You’ve laid out the rules in a very straightforward manner. Thank you!

  18. I’m so thrilled to see so many others who find this “new” habit appalling. I thought I was completely alone in my dismay.

  19. An apostrophe is used ONLY to (1) represent a contraction (“there’s” for “there is”) or (2) a possessive (John’s breath is bad). Can’t get much simpler. It is indeed grating when apostrophes are misused as pluralizing devices (“the 1940’s”).

  20. I think this is useful stuff to know for publication or other public use, and Penny’s explanation of what is considered standard usage is straight-forward and easy to follow. But the assumption some make that other usages are necessarily errors in how English has been used traditionally may not be correct. In many cases the so-called errors grew out of what were alternative uses that can sometimes predate what came to be considered “standard” usage. Language does change, and English(like other languages) has always had variations. It continues to be a living and thriving language that will change: that is part of what makes it such a rich language. It is one thing to seek clarity in what we write amongst all these options, both historical and contemporary; but another to recoil in disgusted judgement. Written English is a conundrum in its “rules”, and people do the best they can. If you know what they mean, let it go, unless you are a teacher or an editor, in which case your purposes are best served by gentle explanation of what, in a particular circumstance, would serve both reader and writer best. .

  21. Clearly this topic has struck a chord, and I am glad to hear from kindred spirits! I detect interest in a blog post on dates (1880s, 1890s), so stay tuned for that. I like the idea of doing a Portable Genealogist on this topic; thanks for the suggestion. Something like “Basic Grammar for Genealogists”? We have one called “Editorial Stylesheet,” but it focuses on presenting genealogical data.

    Thanks, all, for your comments!

  22. Great clarifier -but I’m not in agreement with your use of “Washingtons’ house”. The name -as in George Washington – does NOT
    end in “s”. Therefore would it not be “going to the Washington’s house”?

    1. I read that as all the Washingtons’ house, not just one Washington’s house, as in the whole family. For example: We are going to the Washingtons’ home tonight. Bob and Jane Washington always have a great party.

      1. The preceding article “the” makes the surname plural; therefore, Washingtons. The possessive of that, as in their house, would be the Washingtons’ house. Let’s not try to invent new practice to justify longstanding errors.

  23. Perhaps as a Last Comment, but certainly as the 50th(!), may I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style 14th Edition. Cheap copies can be had at eBay. While there is now a 15th edition (I believe), the 14th was the “house” style reference book for Penguin Books New York through last year. On the floor leaning, against a a large plastic filing case, is my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1973 1st), which I consult more regularly, as its there on the floor, than my copy of the classic Spelling Dictionary paperback that’s in a small take-with-me briefcase. I still have to tell myself “i before e except after c”.

  24. I approached your crisply written and lighthearted article with a good deal of anticipation, which, alas, was mildly disappointed. As an old English teacher (“old” in every sense), I sympathize, concur, and support what is, as others here have pointed out, a losing battle. At any rate, my disappointment had to do with the appearing and disappearing “s” on last names–like mine, Childs. We Childses couldn’t seem to settle on a final “s” until well into the 19the century, when I suspect the government forced us to come to agreement on which branches of our family would have the name “Child,” which the name “Childs,” and which the name “Childress” (although the first two clans have some doubts about the third, and vice versa). What I’m trying to say–in my long-winded way–is that an article on how the casual spelling conventions of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries affected family identities. Whole portions of my lineage would disappear if I insisted that only people named “Childs” were related to me. Why were people so fast and loose with name spelling? Or was it that census-takers and bureaucrats were careless? Did it have something to do with misunderstood pronunciations, obscure social cachets, legal matters? Come to think of it, perhaps I should write the article myself.

    (My spellcheck repeatedly marked “Childses” as incorrect)

    1. It is more likely that it had to do with literacy, of which there was far less in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries (and certainly before this as well). Both the individual and the census takers were subject to this deficiency. Thus, the spelling of names, of which many were based on the native (often foreign) pronunciation as well as the phonetics being used at the time of the census, came in a wide variety. As populations began taking advantage of public education, surnames became more fixed in spelling. However, as the diverse (related) lines of the family began fixing the spelling of their family branch, spelling variations ensued.

  25. I was glad to see you Adams as an example, since my maiden was Adams. it was always a problem when it came to make it plural or possessive. Years ago my mother did a Christmas needle point which I have inherited, for the time being anyway. I may pass it on to a family member with the last name. It says “Welcome to the Adamses”. It looks weird and I remember at the time my mother was doing this picture, her asking how to spell it, which way was right and she asked my people as did my sister and myself. When I recieved it I questioned it again, because it doesn’t look right, which brought me to your sight. Thank you for clarifying this for me. I didn’t want to pass my mother’s work on to a family member with a spelling mistake.

    1. If only you could get rid of “off of” I would be eternally grateful. And while you’re at it, wipe out the sentences that begin with “Me and my friend…”

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