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On rare occasions, I get a letter where an attempt to pluralize my last name turns out to be a grotesque mistake: The Yate’s. It’s hard to know for sure what’s going on inside the writer’s mind here, but he’s almost certainly seized with some degree of panic as a result of a lack of confidence in a rule.

In general, people tend to get nervous when apostrophes are added to nouns that end in ‘s’. So let’s take the time to review the rule.

To be clear, apostrophes are used to form contractions (such as it is, can notPrayed I would not do it), as well as to show possession (as in “That’s my father’s car”). We are dealing with the second usage here.

Let’s start first with nouns that don’t end in ‘s’. If the noun is singular, add ‘s to the end to denote possession. If the noun is plural, you only need the apostrophe. For example:

The man’s wallet is on the desk.

The women’s bridge game is cancelled. (the singular, of course, is ‘lady’)

Style guides usually tell you to use an apostrophe after famous names that end in ‘s’, like Jesus or Achilles. But for less exalted nouns, to show that the car belongs to Chris, for example, the teaching has been, until recently, to treat them the same as other nouns, that is, to show possession by adding ‘s. So a sentence would say, “Chris’s car broke down on the bridge the other night.”

This is the point where most people look at the build and say “that’s weird” or “that just doesn’t look right”. This reaction is almost certainly based on the tricks of the double ‘s’ and the havoc these tricks wreak on the writer’s confidence in the rules of punctuation. However, English is a flexible language and it is now acceptable to write Chris’ car or Chris’s car. The challenge for the writer is to be consistent. That is, you must choose one approach and stay with it throughout your writing.

Showing possession of a plural should be a two-step process, and you should avoid being tripped up by nouns ending in ‘s’. So if I’m describing my car, I now have two options:

yachts car

yachts car

Note here that whichever option you choose, the apostrophe comes after the final ‘s’ of ‘Yates’. The central problem with the example at the beginning of this article is that the writer did not leave the surname intact as a self-contained unit. “Yacht” has no value as a name.

If I want to describe the household in which all the members of my family live, the first thing I have to do is write the plural of my last name: Yateses. Then, to show possession, I follow the rule of plurals (I add only one apostrophe). Finally, I compose a sentence:

The Yates house is yellow.

Is your message inconsistent if you write: “The Yacht house is yellow”? No. Rarely does a punctuation error lead to this result. The issue here has more to do with improving the accuracy of your writing. It begs the question, which Yachts?

Accuracy may start off small at first, but ultimately you’re working to improve all of your writing. Plus, you’ll find that the little things combine to play a big part in helping your writing be more accurate. Your time learning the rules will not be wasted.

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