Dear Dr. Linda,
My mom sells beauty supplies and wants to put a sign in her window advertising a Presidents Day Sale. Since she wasn’t born in this country, her grammar, punctuation, whatever is not always the best. So, my brother and I always go over everything she writes. My brother is telling me that the word Presidents in her sign President’s Day Sale doesn’t need an apostrophe. I think it does. I’m not sure if it should be President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day. My brother insists it should be Presidents without an apostrophe. He says that it’s being used as an adjective. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember any of that stuff. All I want to know is who’s right.
You don’t have to publish this, but if you want to you can. I just want to know where the apostrophe goes or if my brother is right. I went online, but it didn’t help me. What would you do?
P.S. By the way, who does Presidents Day refer to? George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or both? Or, all presidents?
I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to make this into a column. You and your brother are not the only ones arguing over the punctuation mark used (or not used) in Presidents Day. It seems to be an issue for many who run President Day Sales or are just curious as to the right way to write the name of the holiday. Although it’s not absolutely clear, whether or not you use an apostrophe (and where it goes if you do) depends on why you’re writing it and who will be reading it.
The holiday itself began back in the 1880s as a way to observe George Washington’s birthday, traditionally February 22. It became a federal holiday in 1885. Based on that, the word president referred only to one man—George Washington—so the term would be written as President’s Day, as in Washington’s Day.
As it happens, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was February 12. So, in 1968, the holiday was reconceived to honor both Washington and Lincoln and was moved, for the sake of uniformity, to the third Monday in February, in 1971. If you think of it in that way, the apostrophe remains, but it moves (Presidents’ Day), and now refers to more than one person. But as time has gone by since then, the day has been celebrated, especially by retailers, as an honor of all presidents.
Even so, some argue that the word president used in this way is a plural noun that acts like an adjective and is not a possessive, and therefore would not use an apostrophe. This holiday, by the way, is not the only one that people sometimes argue over. How about Veterans Day? Is it for that one veteran you want to honor? A couple? All? We mostly default to leaving out the apostrophe, but I’ve seen it written with an apostrophe as well. What about Mother’s Day? Father’s Day? Most of the time, we use the apostrophe, and focus on one mother or father at a time—ours. But by the same token, Mothers Day and Fathers Day would theoretically be acceptable, too.
So, back to your question. Which one of you is right? Both of you. Like “beauty,” the answer is in the eye of the beholder. For the sake of argument for your mother’s sign, though, I’d leave the apostrophe out. (At a sale, nobody’s thinking about presidents.)
You mentioned that you don’t remember “any of that stuff,” like what an adjective is. You aren’t alone. Most people, except for writers and editors, who deal with them every day, don’t remember the specifics of the parts of speech unless they had a teacher that drilled it or even made them diagram sentences, or required them to fill in the parts of speech along with the subject and predicate. We won’t go there, but it’s worth a quiz to see what you do remember.
Parts of Speech
1. An ______ describes or modifies nouns and pronouns.
2. A _______ is used in place of one or more nouns.
3. In past tense, a _________ shows action or a past state of being.
4. A __________ noun names a person, place, thing or idea.
5. A ________ tense verb shows action or a present state of being.
6. _________ nouns refer to particular people, places or things. They begin with capital letters.
7. A future ___________ shows action or a future state of being.
8. An ________ modifies or gives more information about verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.
9. A _________ joins words, groups of words or sentences.
10. An ___________ expresses strong emotion.
11. A ____________ shows the relationship between a noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence.
12. A _________ verb works with the main verb to make its meaning clearer.
Answers: 1.) adjective 2.) pronoun 3.) verb (past tense) 4.) common 5.) present 6.) Proper 7.) verb 8.) adverb 9.) conjunction 10.) interjection 11.) preposition 12.) helping verb