Plurals and Possessives: What Does Your Sole Proprietorship’s Name REALLY Mean?

Understanding plurals and possessives is the key to a business name that means what you think it means.
Understanding plurals and possessives is the key to a business name that means what you think it means.
Over in our DBA filings department, we’ve noticed a trend among sole proprietors to insert either their first or last name into the business name to indicate something that they themselves own: a bakery, a print shop, a photography company. But how does one do this grammatically?

In this post, we’ll look at a few different ways of incorporating a personal name into a business name. But most importantly, we’ll look at what those business names mean—and whether the result matches what you intended them to mean.

It’s all in the punctuation.

Steve wants to open his very own car garage. It’s his garage; he’s starting a sole proprietorship. So what should he call it? He knows he has to add an “s” at the end of his name, but where does the apostrophe go? Is there an apostrophe?

“Steves Garage”

Steve decides to put an “s” on the end of his name and file his business this way. Out loud, his business name sounds absolutely correct—but, grammatically, what does it mean? Steve is, unfortunately, confusing possessives with plurals.

In general, the word “plural” means more than one, and it’s the same in grammar. “Steves Garage” refers to multiple Steves that somehow relate to the garage (perhaps it’s a garage that stores Steves…?), but in a way that doesn’t indicate ownership.

When to use it instead:

If Steve wants to team up with his mechanic buddy, whose name is also Steve, and open a DBA partnership, they might theoretically use an “s” with no apostrophe to indicate that there are in fact multiple Steves. (“Garage” doesn’t quite flow grammatically from a simple plural noun, of course, but let’s not worry about that now.)

The fact is, for one single Steve, it’s clear that simply adding an “s” doesn’t quite do the trick.

“Steves’ Garage”

So Steve adds an apostrophe to his name to signify possession—now he understands that because it’s his garage, and there’s only one Steve, he needs to use a possessive. But before Steve commissions his sign, he should ask himself: does this really mean what I think it means?

If you're a sole proprietorship, make sure your punctuation agrees!
If you’re a sole proprietorship, make sure your punctuation agrees!

When to use it instead:

Remember how “Steves Garage” didn’t really work, grammatically? Well, the addition of the apostrophe fixes that. Now you have two “Steves” owning one garage; the “s” at the end of “Steve” still signifies a plural noun, not a possessive. Then, with the apostrophe positioned after the plural noun, that plural noun now possesses something: the garage.

Unfortunately, we’ve still got two Steves involved (but at least they’re owning the garage now, rather than being stored there). What’s a lone Steve to do?

“Steve’s Garage”

Ahhhh, now we’re talking. Now we have just one singular Steve, and an apostrophe-“s” ensuring that he stays singular while also indicating ownership. Steve owns his Garage, no other namesakes involved.

Remember: The owner goes before the apostrophe.

All you have to do is look for the apostrophe. Now, forget about it altogether, along with whatever follows it. If the remaining word is plural, you’ve got two owners (i.e., Steves). If the remaining word is singular, there’s just one owner (Steve).

Now, Steve can run his garage in peace without anyone—Steves or otherwise—getting involved.

Have you ever been led astray by an apostrophe? Tell us about it!

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