When referring to a household sign, is it proper to say, "Welcome to the Smiths" or "Welcome to the Smiths'"?

When referring to a household sign, it is proper to say, "Welcome to the Smiths'," indicating that more than one person with the last name Smith lives there and welcomes you to their home. The apostrophe serves to show that the Smiths possess or own the home.

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If written correctly, the household sign would read “Welcome to the Smiths’.” The apostrophe is indicating possession, and as there is more than one member of the Smith family, it also needs to indicate plurality.

To explain how apostrophes and possession work, allow me to illustrate with a totally different example: a girl or girls with a ball. If the ball belonged to two girls, the correct way to refer to it would be “the girls’ ball.” The placement of the apostrophe after the “s” tells the reader that the ball belongs to more than one girl. In the same way, placing the apostrophe after the “s” in “Smiths’” tells us that there are multiple people with the last name of Smith who live in this house. On the other hand, if the ball belonged to only one girl, it would be referred to as “the girl’s ball.” In the context of this household sign, if “Smith” was the first name of the sole resident of the house, it would be correct for the sign to read “Welcome to Smith’s.”

If the sign simply read “Welcome to the Smiths,” it would be immediately clear to the trained eye that there was an error. It could also be assumed that one was being welcomed to a place that included the word “the” in its name, such as the Vatican or the Drakensberg mountains.

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This is such a wonderful question because the possessive nature of family names seems to be commonly misconstructed in various signage displays.

In this example, we are assuming that the last name of the family is Smith and more than one person with the last name Smith want to welcome guests to their home with a sign outdoors. We need to first make the name plural by adding an -s ending to the last name: Smiths. The Smith family owns that home; therefore, the sign needs to reflect their possession of it. We indicate possession with an apostrophe, so that needs to be reflected in this construction. In this example, we understand the implied nature of the word "home": Welcome to the Smiths' (home). When we remove the word "home," we are left with the proper construction: Welcome to the Smiths'.

A similar issue that arises with family names and which necessitates a different construction centers around Christmas (and other celebratory) cards. You will often see that someone has signed your card with something like "With love from the Watson's." In this case, they aren't really intending to send you love from the home itself but from the people who live inside that home. Because the meaning here is different (there is no possession), there wouldn't be an apostrophe: With love from the Watsons. This simply means that multiple people with the last name Watson are sending you love.

In short, if meaning indicates more than one person and no possession, you do not need to use an apostrophe. But if the family is demonstrating ownership of something, like a house in the example you have provided, you do need an apostrophe.

One more note: if the last name ends in s, ch, sh, z, or x, you will need to add an -es to the last name before adding the apostrophe for the sign.

  • Welcome to the Mattoxes'! (Welcome to the Mattoxes' home!)
  • Welcome to the Jameses'! (Welcome to the Jameses' home!)
  • Welcome to the Nashes'! (Welcome to the Nashes' home!)
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The correct option is "Welcome to the Smiths'." The name Smith has been pluralized to indicate that there is more than one person at this address with the name Smith. And when the noun is pluralized, and one wants to indicate that something belongs to, or is occupied by the pluralized form of the noun, then the apostrophe is placed at the end of the pluralized noun, after the 's.' Likewise, if one wanted to refer to a field which is occupied by horses, one would write, "The horses' field." Or if one wanted to refer to a collection of books owned by one's parents, one would write, "My parents' books."

The apostrophe after the final 's' in the pluralized noun is really important because otherwise, the meaning of the sign changes completely. "Welcome to the Smiths" could suggest, for example, that the sign is welcoming people called the Smiths to the place where the sign is put. Alternatively, "Welcome to the Smiths" could indicate that the signposted place is known formally as a place where there is more than one person named Smith, which while perhaps technically accurate does not also indicate that the house is owned by the Smiths.

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If we were speaking of a single person whose name is Smith, we would simply add an apostrophe-s (known among grammarians as a clitic) to the end of the name:  “Welcome to Smith’s home,” or “Welcome to Smith’s.”  However, in reference to a family, all of whom share the last name Smith, we of course pluralize the name to indicate multiple persons in the family, as in the sentence “The Smiths are coming for dinner.” 

Grammatically, when creating a plural possessive, it is correct to place a single apostrophe after the pluralized word.  So the correct form would be Welcome to the Smiths’.  This is perhaps easier to envision if we make explicit that which is implied in the phrase, that is, “Welcome to the Smiths’ home.” 

If we did implement your other option, Welcome to the Smiths, it would entirely change the meaning of the sentence.  In this case we could assume that The Smiths was a place with a pluralized name, like Beverly Hills or The Alps.  In this case the object of the preposition takes on a locative identity, and loses the implication of home that exists in the first option.  It is no longer a possessive modifier but the object itself.

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