Pondering Punctuation: The Apostrophe (‘)

For my second installment in this series, I wanted to go with a basic bit of punctuation instead of something outlandish like the interrobang. And I have a specific, confusing example I want to highlight.

Last year, I had a friend send me a message on Facebook asking me about Presidents Day and if it should or should not have an apostrophe. Now, even though I’m a copy editor, I don’t always know all these things off the top of my head. So I checked my handy AP style guide (although my copy is many years out of date and the AP has recently made some unpopular changes to a couple major style points).

AP style says clearly “Presidents Day”, no apostrophe. But did you know that’s not an official name for the holiday we celebrate around Washington’s birthday? As such, there’s no official ruling on the use of an apostrophe in the day’s name. Every year when it rolls around, I see equal number of Presidents, President’s and Presidents’. The New York Times ran a piece about this (and the general use/abuse of the apostrophe) in 2011.

The plural possessive apostrophe.

The plural possessive apostrophe.

But now it’s 2014, and the issue still hasn’t been resolved. Personally, before I investigated this last year, I tended to use Presidents’ Day. I always thought the day was to celebrate both Washington and Lincoln, because their birthdays fall within a few days of each other. Judging by the commercials around this holiday, most people seem to lump a whole bunch of famous past presidents into the day (with an occasional appearance from some popular non-presidents like Benjamin Franklin, for some reason).

So if that’s the case, then the word becomes plural—Presidents—and possessive, which is denoted by the apostrophe—Presidents’. It’s their day; we celebrate them on that day (well…ideally).

But if we take what appears to be the official definition of the day—just to celebrate Washington’s birthday—then President’s Day would be the one of the three aforementioned options to choose (although an argument could be made that this is misleading, as Washington is no longer the president, and so shouldn’t it just be called Washington’s Day for clarity? Because in my mind President’s Day would be a celebration of one president, and presumably the current one. But I digress; that goes beyond the question of apostrophe use, after all).

The singular possessive apostrophe.

The singular possessive apostrophe.

So with the rationale behind the two apostrophe versions squared away, what about Presidents Day? Well, the explanation for Veterans Day helps illuminate this. Veterans Day does not take an apostrophe, and that seems to be the official stance. In fact, the first question on the FAQ page of the Veterans Affairs website addresses this, and their reasoning is sound. The day doesn’t belong to veterans in an ownership sense, which is what an apostrophe denotes in this usage (strictly speaking), but it’s meant to celebrate the contribution of all veterans. Therefore, it’s a plural but not a possessive—so no apostrophe. So if Presidents Day is meant to celebrate a number of U.S. presidents, then the same rule should apply, right? In that case it should indeed be Presidents Day.

However, if the AP style guide and other sources are correct, and the day is only meant to celebrate Washington, then a plural wouldn’t make sense (which makes me wonder why that’s the option the AP chose if in their own definition they say the holiday is for one past president’s birthday). So we’re back to President’s Day possibly being the most correct. Is your head spinning yet? No wonder everyone just abuses the apostrophe willy-nilly when it comes to this holiday.

As the New York Times article points out, it’s pretty common to omit apostrophes all over the place nowadays (or, poor dears, use them where they don’t belong). And everyone who’s been on the Internet for at least a few months has seen the “its vs. it’s” and “your vs. you’re” memes (although both are an issue of a possessive without an apostrophe vs. a contraction) that float around from time to time.

But the darling apostrophe doesn’t deserve all this harassment; it has its proper place and usage. Like all punctuation, its purpose is to help clarify language and meaning.

Of course, to use it properly, we first need to know our own intention. We can start by sorting out how many and which president(s) we’re celebrating on President(‘)s(’) Day. Let’s give the poor apostrophe a break—it can’t clarify what we’re already unclear about.

Other posts in this series:

About Nicole DeGennaro

Burgeoning writer, insatiable reader, and continuous dreamer.
This entry was posted in Pondering punctuation, Punctuation, Random, Reader-suggested topics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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