Presidents’ Day? President’s Day? Presidents Day? You’ve probably seen all of them on various calendars and ads for seasonal sales. Which one is right? Actually, each can be considered grammatically correct, but each iteration conveys a slight difference in meaning.
Is it any wonder then that students struggle with the apostrophe on the ACT and SAT? The good news is both tests limit the scope of apostrophes to possession on nouns and contractions on pronouns. That doesn’t mean apostrophes are easy, however. This article won’t address every usage of the apostrophe in real life, correctly or not, but this brief lesson should at least dispel the mystery around the various spellings of this week’s holiday.
An apostrophe on a noun conveys a possessive relationship with the noun that follows. You may be wondering how does a word “possess” or “own” anything, but this is grammar, not philosophy. Don’t overthink it.
Does a baby have toys? Do the toys belong to the baby? Then write “baby’s toys.” Do several babies have toys? Do the toys belong to the babies? Then write “babies’ toys.”
Your ear is no help on apostrophes—baby’s, babies’, babies all sound alike. You have to know the rules: singular nouns use an apostrophe and then an s, whereas plural nouns use an apostrophe after the s that’s already there. That is, the plural is babies. The plural possessive is babies’.
Nouns with unusual plurals that don’t end in s use an apostrophe and an s (e.g., Children’s Hospital). Neither the ACT nor the SAT tests unusual plurals often, nor do they test possession with nouns that end in s. “The boss’s office? The boss’ office?” There is no consensus among grammar guides on which is correct, so no high schooler has to worry about it on test day.
President’s vs. Presidents’
Many calendars use the plural because the holiday celebrates the birthdays of George Washington (February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and honors all U.S. Presidents. Thus the plural Presidents’ because we are talking about more than one president.
Other calendars use President’s Day, just like Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day. The singular possession conveys a tribute to the institution of the presidency, just as Mother’s Day is in honor of motherhood, even if the day celebrates all mothers. Hence the singular President‘s because the concept of the presidency is singular.
Confusion aside, the use of the apostrophe to show possession is one of the English language’s best inventions. Most languages, including Spanish, rewrite the sentence as “the toys of the baby.” The apostrophe makes sentences shorter and smoother. Who would want a Day of Valentine bouquet? Who would go to a Day of St. Patrick Parade?
But can we live without the apostrophe and still have possession? In some cases, yes. When a possessive noun can just as easily be understood as a modifier, the apostrophe gets dropped. Think of sports teams: Cubs fans are indisputably fans of the Cubs, but you’ll rarely see Cubs’ fans in print. Come November, you’ll see Veterans Day on most calendars (even those that use Presidents’ Day). Similarly, sign makers seem to be dropping the apostrophe for restrooms. Womens Room and Mens Room have become the norm. Of course, women and men are both unusual plurals that don’t take an s, so it’s a stretch to consider womens and mens as adjectives. In any case, when it comes to Presidents Day, mattress stores sure seem to like that version.
Now that the mystery of the apostrophe for Presidents’ Day (or whatever) is cleared up, here’s a timely trivia question. Scroll down for the answer.
- Abraham Lincoln was born on the same day in the same year as what
other illustrious 19th century figure?
A. Edgar Allen Poe
B. Charles Darwin
C. Frederick Douglass
D. Queen Victoria
Choice (B) is correct. Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on February 12th, 1809. Edgar Allen Poe was born in the same year (1809) but not on February 12. Frederick Douglass’s exact birth date is unknown but believed to be in the year 1818; he chose February 14th as his birthday. Queen Victoria was born in 1819, a full decade after Lincoln. Mark your calendars for the bicentennial of her birth on May 24th!