This blog has moved! Please join us over at!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Baby Naming Issue: Plural-Sounding Names

Jenny writes:
No, I'm not pregnant. ;) I was just reminded about something by today's post that might be a good topic for discussion.

The issue of plural sounding first names and surnames. For example, I really liked the name Miles. I think it sounds good with my last name: Miles Jacobs. But what about when you need to talk about possession? The ball belonging to Miles? That ball is Miles's Jacobs's? Gah!

Also, I know that wasn't proper punctuation above, but honestly, I've never been clear about how to do it right. I'm not sure what exactly I am asking you to address, but I always enjoy your take on things.

I totally agree: this is one of the main problems of names that end in S. When I worked in a daycare, we had a boy in our class named James, and my co-worker wrote "Jame's Cubby." Er?

More typically, people get confused because they memorized a "things ending in S vs. things not ending in S" rule rather than the "plural vs. singular" rule they should have memorized. So they treat a singular-name-ending-in-S as if it were plural, because it ends in S: James' Cubby, Miles' Cubby. But in fact, singulars get an apostrophe-S even if those singulars end in S: it's James's Cubby, or Charles's Cubby, or Ross's Cubby (Triple S Award!). And in the case of Miles Jacobs, it would be either Miles's Cubby or Miles Jacobs's Cubby: one possessive apostrophe per unit, and "Miles Jacobs" is one unit.

And yet, saying it out loud, we'd probably say it as if it were Miles Jacobs' Cubby---just because we tend to do that verbally when we run into the "zezzes" sound. This is probably why there's that weird exception that Jesus gets to be a plural possessive (Jesus' Cubby), even though that is totally nuts: everyone felt weird about saying "Jesuzzes," especially during responsive readings or The Lord's Prayer where everyone was saying it together and sounded like a hive of oversize bees, and so they made a group decision to let it be "in Jesus' name." My guess is that that decision lead to a LOT of confusion: you can only see "Jesus' name" so many times before you start writing "James' Cubby."

Here's a trick for remembering how to make a first-name-ending-in-S possessive: pretend it doesn't end in S. If we were talking about the cubby belonging to Adam, we'd say Adam's Cubby: we added an apostrophe and an S to the name. We do the same for the cubby belonging to Lucas, and it's Lucas's Cubby.

But! All this is to say YES, it's a problem. "Miles's Cubby" both looks and sounds more awkward than "Michael's Cubby," and it's the kind of thing that causes problems for many people. It may be one of the reason ending-in-S names often make my finalist list but so far haven't made it to any of my babies.


AmyRobynne said...

Thank you for this! Your way is the way I've done possessive S stuff forever, but I assumed I was doing it wrong because I never seem to see it written like that. I just hate seeing James' and feel like something's missing. Thanks for the justification :)

Suzanne said...

I've been a Davis for 6 years now and I STILL go out of my way to avoid having to use the plural or possessive of my own last name. No matter how many times you explain it I still do it wrong. Hey, at least now I can blame Jesus!

M.Amanda said...

Oh, Swistle, I love you! This is exactly what I learned about possessives, but I've seen and heard the other way (Regardless of whether it's plural, if it ends in s, just add the apostrophe, not apostrophe s.) so much that I began to wonder if maybe this was one of those things I thought I learned, but didn't really and just made up a rule that made sense to my little grade school mind.

M.Amanda said...

... or one of the rules that changed and because I wasn't in school anymore and not bothering to keep up I kept doing it the old way, which everyone else figured out long ago was now wrong - like still believing Pluto is a planet.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Thank you for addressing this. I have a daughter named Tess and I've never been sure how to correctly write her name in the possessive form. Now I know!

JCF said...

Swistle, I love you! As both a former English major/teacher and the mother of a Miles, this issue drives me crazy!

Thank you for knowing the rule AS WELL AS the Jesus exception!


Miles's Mom

Life of a Doctor's Wife said...

As an editor, I see this mistake all the time and it drives me bonkers! You explain it so well. And I love imagining that swarm of bees bowing their heads in prayer at church.

Sarah said...

It's true. I just checked my book and there is an exception to the singular possessive. The examples they give are Jesus (Jesus' teachings), Moses (Moses' leadership), Xerxes, and Aristophanes.

I sometimes will punctuate my son's name in the same way (Thomas). But only when I want him to seem as important as Moses. :)

Katie M said...

My pet peeve is how people write the last name and make it singular possessive when it should be plural (The Smith's instead of The Smiths'). That drives me crazy!

Anonymous said...

It does get confusing! And to make matters worse, pluralizing last names that end in S also looks a bit strange. E.g., Jones becomes Joneses. Argh!