Below: Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

English Plus+ News, July-August 1999

How Do You Make Plurals of Names?

Is there a difference between the Carpenters and the Carpenter's?

One of the most confusing issues for some reason, at least in the Northeastern United States where I live, is adding the S sound to a family name.

The Problem has a History
The problem, of course, is rooted in Old English which for many words the possessive form of the word ended with an S sound and so did the plural form. In modern English this became standard with only a few exceptional holdovers from Old English (words like children or deer).

With the coming of the printing press this became an important issue because printers and writers wanted to be able to communicate clearly and with as many people as possible. In early modern English we sometimes see people using his after a name to show possession, such as John Smith his Book. This was a pseudo-etymological explanation for the S sound at the end of a possessive, but it never really caught on. For one thing, the etymology was wrong. The S sound was not an abbreviation for his or any other word. It was also a little more awkward if the owner were a woman because her does not sound an S sound at all. People actually said, "Mary Smith's husband, "not, "Mary Smith her husband."

By the eighteenth century the standard had become realtively simple: add an S (or -ES if another syllable is pronounced) to indicate a plural and add an apostrophe-S to make a possessive:

And for Family Names...
This pattern is the same for family names!

We have, for example, the Carpenter family: Mr. and Mrs. John and Mary Carpenter and their two children, Billy and Sue. If we speak of the whole family we say The Carpenters. There is more than one Carpenter.

If, when pronouncing the name we add a syllable, as in the Jones family, we add an ES to the spelling. So we would write, "Keeping up with the Joneses."

If we mean to show possession, we add an apostrophe plus an S just as we do with any other word. If John Carpenter owned a business, we would call it John Carpenter's business. If it were a family-owned business, we would call it the Carpenters' business. Here Carpenters is plural, so the apostrophe follows the S in the possessive.

If you were paying a social call to the family, you would write, "I am going to see the Carpenters." That is all. If you are John Carpenter and you are making a sign for your mailbox, you would write: "The Carpenters." There are more than one. It is plural, that is all.

Is The Carpenter's Ever Correct?
When do we use the possessive? When we want to show possession. The only time we would write something like "I am going to the carpenter's" would be if we were going to the business of a carpenter, and we would not capitalize the C in carpenter because it is an occupation, not a name.

You would probably never have an occasion to write the Carpenter's unless Carpenter's was a brand name of some kind.

One Really Exceptional Case
(All right, if you are a Gaelic clan member and speaking of the head of a clan, you might do this but only because the head of the clan is referred to as the plus the clan name. So, I suppose, if you were actually going to visit the Duke of Argyll at his castle, you could get away with saying, "We are going to the Campbell's," that is, "We are going to the home of the Campbell, the head of the Campbell clan." This is not exactly everyday use for most people...)

Plural and Possession
Now if you for some reason wanted to show plural possession, you could write the Carpenters' or the Joneses.' This is not common.

Now some may say that when they write a name on a mailbox or speak of visiting a family they are thinking possessively. That is, this mailbox is the Joneses' mailbox; or we are going to the Carpenter's house. If that is what you want to communicate, fine. But, remember, such an expression would be both plural and possessive.

So Where Are We Going?
So "We are going to the Carpenters" is normal and typical and unambiguous. That is to say that we are going on a visit to the Carpenter family. We could say, "We are going to the Carpenters'." That is to say, we are going to the place where the Carpenter family lives. For some reason you want to emphasize the dwelling rather than the family, but this would be exceptional.

One other note about names ending in an S. Some authorities, as we have seen tell writers to always make a possessive of a word ending in an S by just adding an apostrophe as in "Mr. Jones' house." However, it appears that more and more authorities are saying to add an apostrophe-S, especially if the S is pronounced as an extra syllable. Therefore, you may also see "Mr. Jones's house." Unless you were trying to show someone pronouncing a word incorrectly, you would not write "the Joneses's house" since only one syllable is added to the pronunciation.

A Quick Check
For what it is worth, we just did a quick check of about half a dozen bird books that make mention of the Ross' Goose. It is named after Bernard Ross and is pronounced "Rosses." All the books, dated from the 1960's to the 1990's, spell the bird's name the same way: Ross' Goose. At least among the scientific community, the standard is still adding an apostrophe without an additional S to a word ending with S, even if the extra syllable is pronounced.

On the other hand, a check of four different editions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (two English, two American) all say, "He'll cleanse my soul, he's shrieve me of the albatross's blood." While albatross is not a proper noun, it is clearly done here to show that the syllable is meant to be pronounced in the poem. As is the case with other situations with more than one standard, choose one and be consistent.

For general rules concerning hyphens in compound words look up Apostrophes under Punctuation in Grammar Slammer or Grammar Slammer Deluxe. Our online Grammar Slammer notes these especially at and

Let's Correct the Textbooks

Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

This is the second of a series of guest editorials by retired English teacher Donald Hibbard.. English grammar terminology comes largely from Latin, and over the centuries there have been problems trying to fit English to a Latin mold. He may help us re-think some of the things we have learned--even some of the things in Grammar Slammer!

The first installment included the proposition that "A sentence is comprised of a subject, predicate, and, as often as not, a complement." This is a distinct contrast to the traditional idea that the predicate of a sentence contains everything except the complete subject.

The second installment will present some ideas on modification that show how the three-part sentence structure makes more sense in English.

Part 2

Too often students (and teachers, I fear) consider modifications to be description. This is understandalbe when a teacher, quoting the textbook, tells the class, "In 'the red box,' red modifies box." Few third graders understand what modification means, but they all know what description means.

Modification means change. The word box is a visual concept. Adding the word red changes the concept. Does it matter? Yes. Almost all of our language is modification. An understanding of modification, both adjectival and adverbial, contributes greatly to an understanding of how our language works.

The fact that many textbook authors do not understand modification can be seen in exercises such as these taken from a grammar text.

If you were to modify your kitchen, would not the modification become part of the kitchen? Can you imagine any modification of an automobile engine not becoming part of the engine? So it is in language. Every modifier becomes part of what it modifies.

This is why a complement cannot be part of the predicate. This is why those prepositional phrases are incorrectly set apart. The formula SIMPLE + MODIFIERS = COMPLETE works throughout grammatical structure. Therefore, the correct identification of the prepositional phrases should be something like this:

If we undestand how modification works, we realize that English sentences are mostly structures within structures, not side by side structures.

The three structures in most sentences that exist side by side are subject, predicate, and complement. The complement is not a part of the predicate, it does not modify or help modify the verb. That is why our dictionaries recoginze transitive and intransitive verbs separately.

Using the SIMPLE + MODIFIERS = COMPLETE formula, we can say that room is the simple complement, the modifies room, and the room is the complete complement or complete direct object.

Where is All This Leading?
Our conclusion?

A sentence is comprised of a subject, predicate, and, as often as not, a complement.

Here is an interesting aside. If we understand that most grammatical structures in English are within other structures, then relationships can become easier to understand and explain.

One well-known textbook uses the following example to illustrate a subordinate clause.

Let's think about this. If the sentence were "Now we must tie up all the boats," would the adverb Now be outside the "main" clause? Of course not. It is part of the complete predicate inasmuch as it modifies the verb-adverb combination must tie up. If the sentecnce were "Before a storm we must tie up all the boats" would Before a storm be outside the "main" clause? No. It is a prepositional phrase that is part of the complete predicate because it modifies must tie up.

Why should the subordinate clause be any different? It modifies the verb just as an adverb or an adverbial prepositional phrase would. If you think about it, the true definition of a subordinate clause is as follows: "A subordinate clause is one that is a grammatical part of another clause." An independent clause is one that is not a grammatical part of another clause.

Next time we will take a look at the proposition about verbs:
"A participle, like an infinitive, is used as an adjective, a noun, or an adverb."

Our Thanks to Mr. Hibbard for his thoughtful contribution.

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