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Apostrophic Disaster

Why do people incorrectly use an apostrophe to punctuate a proper noun that simply just needs to be pluralized?

A good example of this is when we refer to a decade. When we refer to, say, the Eighties, more often than not, people punctuate it as “the 80’s”.

This is incorrect.

When we refer to the years of 1980 through 1989 as a set, the correct term to use is the plural “the Eighties”, or numerically, “the 80s”. Using an apostrophe (as in “80’s”) puts 80 into a possessive context, and is completely incorrect. Referring to “the Eighties” as “the 80’s” is the same as calling it “the Eighty’s”. Wrong.

We tend make the same error with surnames, but it’s a little more complicated. For instance, if we’re referring to the Smith family, do we refer to them as “the Smiths” or “the Smith’s”?

It depends.

“The Smiths” is a plural term; by using it we’re referring to more than one Smith as a set. “The Smith’s” is a possessive term; by using it we’re referring to something that belongs to the Smith family. The Smith’s house, the Smith’s car, etc.

Let’s look at a few examples. Consider a welcome mat on the porch of the Smith house. Which greeting is grammatically correct?

A. “Welcome to the Smiths”


B. “Welcome to the Smith’s”


The most correct answer in this situation is B, “Welcome to the Smith’s”. The word “home” or “house” is implied here; the greeting is essentially saying “Welcome to the Smith’s house”.

Note, however, that the simple identifying label of “The Smiths” would not necessarily need the apostrophe. Without the apostrophe, you’re referring to the family; with the apostrophe, you’re referring to the residence.

But there are other situations where the Smiths/Smith’s homonym is used, and choosing the correct one requires some thought. For instance, which of the following is correct?

C. “The Smiths came over for dinner.”


D. “The Smith’s came over for dinner.”


If we’re saying that more than one Smith came over for dinner, then the correct answer is A, “The Smiths came over for dinner.” If we were to say “The Smith’s came over for dinner,” we’re implying that something that belongs to the Smiths came over for dinner. That doesn’t make any sense, unless we’re talking about a very rare case of the Smith’s dog coming over for dinner or something, leaving the dog implied in the sentence.

I have no doubt that I’ve made this error myself on many occasions in the past, simply because I never stopped to think about it. But from now on, let’s all please get it right, OK?

OK then.

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