An apostrophe (or not) that keeps people guessing
On this day after the holiday when the United States celebrates its most distinguished presidents, let’s consider an important matter of punctuation.
What’s that you say? You didn’t celebrate a holiday on Monday? You just know that the mail wasn’t delivered and the bank was closed?
Me, too. Sorry. Let me clarify. Yesterday was Presidents Day.
Wait. I mean President’s Day.
No, no. It was Presidents’ Day.
Or maybe it was Presidents Day, after all.
Actually, according to the federal government, it was Washington’s Birthday. There is no federal holiday called Presidents Day or Pres—… oh, you get the picture. George Washington was born on Feb. 22; the U.S. government has marked his birthday with a holiday since 1885.
Some states and federal agencies also began honoring Abraham Lincoln, who was born on Feb. 12. Some combined the two days into something called Presidents Day or Presidents’ Day or President’s Day or the Birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, which was sometimes shorted to BGWAL.
People who lived in states that celebrated BGWAL became so tongue-tied that they forced accession to the Confused Relational Apostrophe and President(’)s(’) Treaty of the late 20th century, generating perpetual bewilderment about that apostrophe and creating an annual run on stylebooks in February.
(I’m kidding about the stylebooks, of course.)
So what’s the proper way to render that holiday that really celebrates Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays but instead uses president to describe itself?
American Heritage, Webster’s and Random House all make it plural possessive: Presidents’ Day. The New York Times stylebook does the same, as does the Chicago Manual of Style.
The Associated Press Stylebook, on the other hand, renders it Presidents Day, apparently considering it a descriptive phrase like writers guide or citizens band radio.
Neither Plato’s Republic nor Milton’s Areopagitica offers any guidance, probably because they were written before Washington and Lincoln were born. The page in George Washington’s diary that may have mentioned the potential holiday contains gravy stains and was long ago declared unreadable.
One thing that all authorities seem to agree on is that the holiday is not President’s Day. It honors more than one president, so a singular possessive makes no sense.
My advice: When the holiday rolls around next year, don’t guess. Guessing creates confusion. Choose a stylebook, look the holiday up and be consistent. That’s always good advice, though, isn’t it?