Common Errors in American Holidays

Over there at Amazon, a reviewer has this comment on the February 18, 2008, page for the Common Errors in English Usage calendar:
Maybe in 2009, a new entry could be the error in the placement of the apostrophe for President's Day on the entry for Monday, February 18, 2008. The common usage is Presidents' Day. How disappointing for a calendar touted as "Common Errors" in English Usage has a common error of its own! Other than that annoyance, I have really enjoyed the calendar.
Which is the kind of comment one has to admire for its willingness to jump right into the thick of things, getting in on the Common Errors action. Logically speaking, of course, the day honors all the U.S. presidents, not just one, so therefore the absolutely correct way of styling this holiday requires a well-placed apostrophe following that final "s": "Presidents'."

I like that logic so much that I've decided to take the commenter's advice and label February 16, 2009, as "Presidents' Day" in next year's edition of the calendar. Using my Google Book search, I see that almost every children's book available styles the holiday as a plural possessive, and it is probably a more acceptable way of presenting the day in front of a crowd likely to appreciate the Common Errors in English Usage calendar. Chalk one up for the Amazon commenter and for the wonders of Web 2.0, which allows for such dynamic exchange of ideas. Yay!

But if you detect a certain lack of embarrassment for having brought this up, if you sense that I'm not contrite about having made the mistake of misplacing this apostrophe, let's just say your intuition has not failed you.

I know I'm given to citing Geoff Pullum a fair amount, but I figure the co-author of the biggest, most revered book on English grammar available ought to know a thing or two about how to approach usage. Here is Geoff discussing the style of another holiday, Patriots' Day (celebrated in the state of Massachusetts):

Why are they all grammatical?

  • Patriots Day uses the plural noun patriots as an attributive modifier in a singular noun phrase with the head noun day, as in weapons cache or activities center.
  • Patriot’s Day uses the genitive singular noun patriot’s as the determiner in a singular noun phrase with day as head, as in my MTV, or in Jeeves's description of his profession, gentleman's gentleman.
  • Patriots’ Day uses the genitive plural noun patriots’ as the determiner in a singular noun phrase with day as head, as in workers' pay or ladies' room.
You would like to think that even Geoff is wrong, though. You'd like to think that there really is a correct way to do these holidays, that you could at least look at the most official source there could be for it, something super official-looking such as a Federal Holidays Web Page. Maddeningly, the most official-looking government page on the matter lists the holiday with its still-most-official title: Washington's Birthday. Over at the post office, where they take their holidays seriously, the singular possessive form is used, though it is set next to the "Washington's Birthday" designation, so it's possible they're just doing this to be consistent with that.

Wikipedia tells us that the plural form, either possessive or not, is currently the norm, but
President's Day is a misspelling when used with the intention of celebrating more than one individual; however, as an alternate rendering of "Washington's birthday," or as denominating the commemoration of the presidency as a singular institution, it is a proper spelling. Indeed, this spelling was considered for use as the official federal designation by Robert McClory, a congressman from Illinois who was tasked with getting the 1968 federal holiday reorganization bill through the House Judiciary Committee.
Wikipedia's justification for using the singular possessive form varies from Pullum's justification for "Patriot's Day," but there's enough justification, I would argue, to style it that way if you want. Plenty of edited material can be found in books to justify the singular possessive. Indeed, The Starr Report prefers it when detailing the Clinton/Lewinsky break-up date in 1998, possibly the most important Presidents' Day event of the past quarter century!

I myself have been wildly inconsistent. In the 2006 and 2007 editions of the calendar I styled the holiday as a plural possessive. Aesthetically, I prefer the singular possessive, and I think that is what took hold of me when I decided to do it that way for 2008. I figured no one would care. Silly me.

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