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Do you have any idea what day it is?
According to ads in last Friday’s Holland Sentinel, today is either “President’s Day,” “Presidents’ Day,” or “Presidents Day.” I’m only sure of this – today is an apostrophe nightmare.
Technically, we are remembering George Washington’s birthday today and, I suppose, by extension the birthdays of all our other presidents. Birthdays bring a bit of possession with them, which eliminates “Presidents Day.” Sorry Buick and Art Van. You got it wrong. And since we don’t honor only Big George today but all the others, from Adams through Obama, “President’s Day” is also wrong. Sorry art gallery in Saugatuck. You missed, too. But I still like your gallery.
It’s “Presidents’ Day.” Congratulations Meijer, your ad was correct. Now try getting the people who write “The McCorkle’s” on their welcome mats to agree with you. And, while you’re at it, try getting the government to give you a compelling reason why November 11 is “Veterans Day” instead of “Veterans’ Day.” Apparently, we are only “honoring” veterans on November 11 and there is no possession indicated in honoring. Hmm. I thought we were honoring our presidents today, too.
Oh, for something logical like last Friday – Valentine’s Day. That one makes sense. I’m sorry, but I really don’t see why it isn’t Veterans’ Day. Maybe I just have a mental block. I will grant you there are some things I am unable to comprehend. The International Date Line, for one. Why my iron has a permanent press setting, for another. Why multiplying negative numbers makes them positive. Things like that.
We have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day presumably because although we honor all mothers and fathers on those days, you only have one mother and father. Like with presidents, we have April Fools’ Day and All Saints’ Day. But like with veterans, we have Columbus Day. I suppose this day doesn’t belong to Columbus because he didn’t discover anything millions of people weren’t already aware of. Make sense? Not to me. I think it should be “Columbus’s Day,” just like it’s Valentine’s Day. We don’t have Valentine Day. But I’m just a voice crying in the apostrophe wilderness.
Some say the most frequent apostrophe error is with its and it’s, since “its” goes against the rule and drops the apostrophe we normally add for possession. I will admit to writing it’s when I mean its in the heat of battle. For some reason, I never do it the other way, though. I never write its when it’s is called for. I believe the its/it’s thing is overblown. I know the difference yet still catch myself doing it wrong. I look at that as a typo, not ignorance. Its and it’s pales in comparison to the confusion over when to add ‘s on the end of a word that already ends with “s.” If you pay attention, you’ll see this mishandled daily.
The rule is simple. If the word ends in s and is singular, you add an ‘s for possession. If the word ends in s because an s has been added to make it plural, you add an apostrophe but do not add another s.
In other words, when William Shakespeare buys a new tennis racquet, he has just purchased William’s racquet. But when Serena Williams gets a racquet, it’s Williams’s racquet. (Even though Word just put a squiggly red line under “Williams’s,” I know I’m right. Damn you, Microsoft.) And if Shakespeare only bought a third of the racquet because William Pitt and William Wallace also each bought a third, said piece of sporting equipment is the three Williams’ racquet. Got it? Good, because no one else does. (There is a religious exception to this rule. No matter what the object, it is always Jesus’, never Jesus’s. He’s holy and doesn’t need any other letters. Please, for Jesus’ sake, remember this.)
Don’t let apostrophes get you down. Apostrophes confuse most everyone, from Li’l Abner to Lil’ Kim.
And to those who want to do away with apostrophes all together, I present the former Detroit Tigers’ player John Wockenfuss and his glove. It is Wockenfuss’s glove. If we eliminated apostrophes, this would be Wockenfusss glove. Start using words like that and we’re only a step or two away from devolving into German and talking about our lebensabschnittgefährter. (By the way, no one gets this right either – but when Wockenfuss and his family gather, they are the Wockenfusses. And if they had a welcome mat made, that’s what it should say on it: “The Wockenfusses.”)
Finally, in the bizarre world of how our language works, it’s only Presidents’ Day, and not Vice Presidents’ Day, but I still have to give a shout out to Joe Biden, who clarified last week whether he is a candidate for the presidential nomination in 2016 by saying, “There’s no obvious reason . . . why I think I should not run.” You’ve got me, Joe, but I suppose this sentence is a verbal example of the negative multiplication math rule I don’t understand.
Ain’t English fun?
Thank you, Jeff. Thank you. I feel better knowing that at least one other person out there understands the pain endured by those of us who actually notice these things.
Ah, Jeff, you are now an official member of the Apostrophe Posse. Welcome.
Ah but wait, mein Freund, there may be another wrinkle to this. A while ago I saw a report about a church support group for mothers. The question I posed to James VandenBosch at Calvin was whether it was "The Mothers Group" or "The Mothers' Group" (having ruled out "The Mother's Group). Here is his reply:
It mostly depends on whether the noun is being used as an attributive noun (functioning mainly as a modifier of the following word) or as a possessive noun (indicating possession mostly, although other meanings also come into play). The Chicago Manual of Style (6.23) clarifies this distinction, and I think it's very good. My advice would be the form without any possessive at all for this occasion, although you'd have to go to the possessive form in something like "the mothers' complaints."
So although I don't know for sure, if "Presidents" modifies the day on which they are honored and does not indicated that they possess the day as Shakespeare might a tennis racket, then "Presidents Day" may well be correct after all.
I'm with Scott. And let me defend the McCorkles. It's their mat. They are protecting it from the Hatfieldses in the apartment next door, who kept swiping other peopleses mat's for wiping their own shoes.
I have to tell you that as a non-native speaker, your English (I mean your'all English) drives me nuts….because I learned all the rules, and I follow them!
This makes me absurdly happy. I suppose that's why I work in publishing . . .
I love it all, even though it still confuses me. Another biblical example would be Moses' — even though he's not holy, he still doesn't need the s after the apostrophe.
As for its (possessive), I always say to myself: his, hers, theirs, and its. No apostrophe needed.
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Schisms may result over adding a second s! Mrs. Mabel Jabaay, the maven of all things punctuational in my 7th grade English class at Calvin Christian School, would turn over in her grave at "Williams's racquet." I say Microsoft is right: No special treatment for Jesus on this one. (Thanks, Jeff, for a delightful piece!)
If laughter is good for the soul , "It is well with my soul"!!! Marilyn
Alas, the Chicago Manual of Style no longer makes exceptions for either Moses or Jesus. Once I got over the shock of this change, I realized it's wonderful blackmail information to hold over recalcitrant authors who want to insist upon Wilkins' rather than Wilkins's. Copy editors take the little victories!
I'm with Scott (and JVB).
I also love that this post is receiving so much attention. Oh, the beauties and joys of grammar.