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July 13th, 2005

Where does the apostrophe go? / practice / Walshs, Walsh's or Walshes?

by Barbara Wallraff

Carole Boddicker, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “Big discussion here about apostrophes. Example: ‘Our schools’ newspaper,’ where ‘s’ apostrophe indicates a possessive noun. Second example: ‘That’s your paper too,’ where apostrophe ‘s’ indicates a shortened form of the verb ‘is.’ I learned these rules in the 1940s, and my daughter learned different rules at the University of Northern Iowa in the 1990s. If I’m correct, I get a steak dinner. If not, I pay.”

Dear Carole: Please don’t thank me, because I’m going to tell you to pay for that steak dinner. You’re right that an apostrophe plus “s” can be a contraction of “is” -- as in your “That’s.” But at least as often, an apostrophe plus “s” indicates a singular possessive: “Our school’s newspaper.”

In fact, you’re also right that “s” followed by an apostrophe indicates a possessive -- but except in special cases (such as the possessives of biblical and classical names like Jesus and Socrates, to which most authorities wouldn’t add another “s” but would write “Jesus’” and “Socrates’”), the possessive is plural. For instance, “our schools’ newspaper” means “the newspaper our schools publish,” not “the newspaper our school publishes.”

P.S. I hope you enjoy a nice dinner with your daughter even though you’ll be picking up the check.

Joan Britt, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “Would you please explain the meaning of the word ‘practice’ as it’s used in ‘a doctor’s or an attorney’s practice’? Do doctors and attorneys practice on the people who consult them?”

Dear Joan: Not to worry. A “practicing physician” isn’t a doctor who’s still learning his or her profession -- or at least isn’t supposed to be. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “practice” started out about 500 years ago meaning “the action of doing something” or “action as distinguished from profession, theory, knowledge, etc.” That’s what the word still means in phrases like “the practice of medicine” and “a law practice.”

Pat Walsh, of Harrison Township, Mich., writes: “My last name ends with an ‘sh.’ When signing cards from the family, I would like to pluralize it, but I don’t know if I should add an ‘es,’ an apostrophe and ‘s,’ or just an ‘s.’ None of these options looks correct. I’ve been stressing over this since I got married 28 years ago. I hope you can help.”

Dear Pat: I thought Bill Walsh, the national-desk copy chief of The Washington Post and the author of the excellent language-usage books “The Elephants of Style” and “Lapsing Into a Comma,” would be the ideal person to answer your question, so I sent it along to him.

He replied: “Pat Walsh and I are ‘Walshes,’ despite what the apostrophe-happy yard-sign industry would have us believe. This may seem a bit weird: More than one Walshe would also be ‘Walshes.’ But most names follow the same conventions for plurals as common nouns. (The major exception is people whose name ends in ‘y’: More than one Kennedy would be ‘Kennedys.’) Just as more than one load of laundry would be ‘washes’ with an ‘es,’ more than one Walsh would be ‘Walshes.’ Use an apostrophe when you have a possessive, as in ‘the Walshes’ house’ or ‘Come on over to the Walshes’,’ where ‘house’ is implied.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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