Episode 255: December 23, 2010
by Mignon Fogarty
For me, spending time with family is a big part of the holidays, and thinking about family reminded me of a few tricky little quirks of family names and family words that can confuse people, so today I’ll tell you how to make family names plural (even those that end in “x,” “y,” and “z”), how to refer to more than one brother- or sister-in-law, and how to formally address more than one man.
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How to Make Family Names Plural
First let’s figure out how to make family names plural. Family names are like brand names, you don’t change the base spelling. For example you make “blackberry,” the fruit, plural by changing the “y” to “ies”; but you make “BlackBerry,” the phone, plural by simply adding an “s” to the end: “BlackBerrys.”
It’s the same with names. “Kennedy” becomes “the Kennedys.” A newsletter subscriber named Julie asked if she should make the last name “Bellman” plural by making it “Bellmen,” and the answer is no. Something like “Bellman” becomes “the Bellmans.”
Some names need an "es" to become plural: names that end in "s," “x,” "z," “ch,” and “sh,” for example:
- The Joneses invited you to hold ladders while they hang lights.
- The Foxes decorated four Christmas trees.
- The Alvarezes went to visit their grandmother.
- The Churches sang in the top-hat choir.
- The Ashes got stuck at the train station.
The same rules apply to first names. If you have two cousins named Alex, they are the Alexes.
Don’t Use an Apostrophe to Make Names Plural
Never use an apostrophe to make a name plural.
Never use an apostrophe to make a name plural. Apostrophes are for possessives.
- The Joneses’ dinner was a success.
- The Foxes’ house was beautiful.
- The Alvarezes’ grandmother was delighted.
- The Churches’ singing was heavenly.
- The Ashes’ train derailed in the mountains.
How to Refer to More Than One In-Law
Now that we have the basics of making names plural, we can move on to trickier plurals: the in-laws. One thing that makes it tricky is that we call a group of them collectively “the in-laws,” but that’s not how you make them plural when you’re talking about a smaller group.
For example, if sister-in-law #1 and sister-in-law #2 are in the kitchen, you can safely gossip about those two sisters-in-law while you’re in the living room. They’ll never hear you over the music.
You make "in-law compounds" plural by making the noun part plural since the women are primarily your sisters and the "-in-law" part just further describes what kind of sisters they are. The same holds true for other in-laws. They are your
The fact that we refer to them all as “in-laws” is just shorthand. Dictionaries call it a back formation (1).
The Strange Plural of “Mister”
Now on to the plural of “Mister.” Another newsletter subscriber, named Tom, asked me to comment on the use of “Messrs.”--which is the odd plural of “Mr.” It’s an abbreviation for the French word “Messieurs,” and for some reason I’ve never been able to find, we use that instead of “Misters.” I suspect it’s because the abbreviation would be “Mrs.,” which looks like the title for a married woman.
The plural of “Mrs.” is “Mmes.” (short for “Mesdames”), and the plural of “Miss” is “Misses.”The plural of “Ms.” is less clear. It originated in the 1950s, and various sources report that the plural can be “Mses.,” “Mss.,” or “Mmes.” If the need to make “Ms.” plural arises, pick the form you like and be consistent.
In American English, a period is required after the abbreviations; in British English, no punctuation is required after the abbreviations.
Tom also asked whether he should reserve “Messrs.” for men with the same last name or whether it is acceptable to use for any two men. Either is fine. It can be used to refer to two male family members with the same last name*, as in “Messrs. Smith have arrived covered in mud,” or to refer to two unrelated men (2), as in “Messrs. Bartleby and James should liven up the party.”
My impression is that “Messrs.” is used more commonly in Britain than in the United States. It appeared only once in the New York Times in the last month and over 20 times in the British newspaper The Guardian.
And with that, I wish you more mud than gossip at your holiday gatherings.
*Although it appears to be acceptable to put “the” in front of “Messrs.” (The Messrs. Smith have arrived), it is more common to see it written without the article.
1. in-laws. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/in-laws (accessed: December 20, 2010).
2. I_have_heard_it_said_that_it_took. Dictionary.com. Columbia World of Quotations. Columbia University Press, 1996. http://quotes.dictionary.com/I_have_heard_it_said_that_it_took (accessed: December 20, 2010).