Families or Family’s: When to Show Possession or Pluralize

The English language can be confusing. Some words might sound the same, while they are spelled differently, and some words are spelled the same and yet have different meanings.

If you are confused about how to pluralize the word “family,” or whether or not you should add an apostrophe, you aren’t alone.  

The word families is plural, denoting more than one family. The word family’s — with an apostrophe and added “s” — is singular and shows possession. Therefore, the difference between families and family’s lies in understanding possession versus pluralization. Possessive nouns show that something belongs to a person, place, or thing. Plural nouns simply mean that there is more than one.  

We’ll go through the basics behind each spelling, as well as when and how to use both correctly so that, by the time you finish reading, you’ll be an expert too.

Understanding Pluralization Versus Possession 

The most confusing part about understanding the difference between possessive nouns and plural nouns is that, with each, you’ll often find an added “s” at the end of the word. But, in both cases, the “s” means something different.  

Let’s look at an example. Below, three sentences are using different versions of the same word:  

1.     My family is going to the beach this summer.

2.     Many families are going to the beach this summer.   

3.     My family’s bags are packed! 

In these sentences, there are three different spellings for the noun, family.  

Remember that nouns are people, places, things, and even ideas (source). And nouns can be singular (meaning one), plural (meaning more than one), or they can show possession or ownership, meaning that something belongs to the person, place, or thing.  

The word family, with no added “s” or apostrophe, simply means that we are talking about one family. In sentence number one above — my family is going to the beach this summer — one family is going to the beach.  

And, the good news is that if you are only talking about one family, this is the spelling you will always use.  

Things get tricky when we start changing the spelling to be plural or possessive.

Take a look at the second sentence, “Many families are going to the beach this summer.”  The spelling is a bit different, and there is no apostrophe added to the word. You might be asking yourself why.

The reason is that we are simply talking about more than one family doing something, not owning or possessing something. Let’s first look at how we make words plural.

Making Nouns Plural

Again, the word plural means “more than one.”  Often, when you have more than one person, place, or idea, you want to communicate that in your writing, and you do so by changing the form or spelling of the word.  

For most nouns, we can simply add an “s” to show that there is more than one (source).  

Unfortunately, though, for many nouns, including the noun family, you also have to change the spelling of the word. It all depends on the letter at the end of the word. It’s a bit of memorization and practice, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you get the hang of it.  

Below are some of the basic rules you’ll want to follow to show that you have more than one of something. But in each of these instances, you have to do more than simply add an “s” to the end of the word:

ScenarioRuleExampleExplanation
For nouns ending in “s,” “x,” “z,” “ch,” or “sh”:Add “es” to show that there is more than one.At the park, we sat on all three benches to rest. Because the word “benches” ends in “ch,” we cannot add an “s” alone.  We have to add “es” to show there is more than one.
For a noun ending in “y” that is not preceded by a vowel.First, change the “y” to an “i” and then add “es.”I went to four birthday parties this year.    Here, the singular noun “party” ends in “y.” Therefore, we changed the “y” to an “i” before adding “es.”
For a noun ending in “y” that is preceded by a vowel.Simply add an “s.”At the zoo, there were many different kinds of monkeys.  The word “monkey” ends in “y,” but right before the “y,” you’ll see the vowel, “e.”  Remember that if there is a vowel before the “y,” you simply add an “s” to show there is more than one.
For a noun ending in “o” that is not preceded by a vowel.Add an “es” to show there is more than one.I have many heroes, but my dad is my number one hero.  Because the word “hero” ends with a consonant and then an “o,” you will add an “es” to the end of the word to show that there is more than one. 
For a noun ending in “o” that is preceded by a vowel.Simply add an “s.” There were four old radios in my grandpa’s attic. Here, the word “radio” ends in “io.”  Because “i” is a vowel that precedes the “o,” we will only add an “s.”

A great idea is to keep a guide handy that will help you identify the different rules of pluralization as you begin practicing, especially with some tricky words and spellings, such as musical terms.  

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology and Dreyer’s English style guide are great additions to your library and will help you with new words, style, and spelling. You can easily find both on Amazon.

There are more rules than in the list above, but we’ll stick to those few basics so that we can focus specifically on the word we are working on: “families.”  

You’ll notice that the noun family ends with a “y,” so to show that there is more than one, simply change the “y” to an “i” and then add an “es” (source). The word families shows that there is more than one family.

In this case, nothing belongs to these families, so we are not going to add an apostrophe. We only add apostrophes to show that the noun is in possession of something.  Let’s take a look at why, next.

Showing Possession

Image by Alexis Brown via Unsplash

Showing possession in writing is a way to communicate that something belongs to someone or something (source). In English, we do that with a little character called an apostrophe. It looks a lot like a comma, but it’s in a different spot.  

You can show ownership for both singular and plural nouns; the difference is all in the spelling and where, precisely, you will need to put that apostrophe. Let’s start with singular nouns since those are a bit easier.  

Let’s say that you want to show that something belongs to your family and your family only. Here is an example sentence:

1.     She threw my family’s baseball back to us when we accidentally lost it in her yard.  

Here, we are talking about one family. When you are dealing with a singular noun, and you want to show ownership, you will first add an apostrophe to the end of the word, and then an “s.” Let’s look at another example.

2.     My family’s beach ball was red, yellow, blue, and orange.  

Here, again, we are talking about something that belongs to one family, so we simply add an apostrophe first, and then an “s” to show that the beach ball belongs to one family.  We don’t have to change the spelling of family at all — we just add to it.  

But what if you wanted to show that something belonged to more than one family?  If you are scratching your head wondering what to do, that is okay!  Let’s take a look — here is an example sentence:

1.     The families’ pets were all playing together at the dog park.

You’ll notice here that we are talking about more than one pet with the plural noun, pets.  And, we wanted to show that the pets belonged to more than one family, too.  

So, you’ll see first that the plural form of the word family is used — families. However, do you notice anything different about the apostrophe? 

If you said it is in a different spot, you are absolutely right. Instead of being placed on the inside of the “s,” we placed it on the outside. Below is a pretty simple rule to remember when showing possession for plural nouns like families:

RuleReasoningExample
To show possession with a plural noun, you will add only an apostrophe to the end of the word.  The reason we only have to add an apostrophe to show possession with plural nouns, such as families, is because there is already an “s” at the end of the word, so we don’t have to add another one.Here are a few more examples:
1. The boys’ balls were all in the toy bin.
2. The babies’ bottles were almost empty. 
3. The families’ lunches were all sent to the park for the picnic.

If you look at the first example sentence in the box above, the balls belong to more than one boy. I know this because the apostrophe is after the “s.”  If the ball belonged to only one boy, it would look like this: boy’s.  

The word babies is a lot like the word families. The singular form ends in y (baby).  So, to make it plural, we change the “y” to an “i” and add “es.”  Then, to show possession,  we add an apostrophe to the end of the word to get babies’

To learn more about how to show possession with singular and plural nouns, take a look at “People’s or Peoples’: Understanding the Differences Between the Two Terms.”  

Families or Family’s: Summing It All Up

All of these rules can definitely get confusing. Learning them takes practice, so don’t get discouraged.

To review, below are the main differences between the singular and plural form for the word “family,” and the singular and plural possessive form of the same word.  

FamilySingular Noun
FamiliesPlural Noun
Family’s Singular Possessive Noun
Families’ Plural Possessive Noun

Final Thoughts

Remember, mastering grammar in the English language can be pretty tricky. It takes time and practice. 

But, be sure to keep resources in your library like those mentioned above — The Oxford English Dictionary and Dryer’s English — they’ll help you as you begin to learn even more about different spellings and their meanings.  

And don’t give up. Soon enough, it’ll become a habit, and you won’t have to think about it at all! 

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