November 11, 2010

Attributives, Possessives, and Veterans Day

As you’re probably aware, today is Veterans Day, but there’s a lot of confusion about whether it’s actually Veteran’s, Veterans’, or Veterans Day. The Department of Veterans Affairs obviously gets asked about this a lot, because it’s the top question in their FAQs:

Q. Which is the correct spelling of Veterans Day?

  1. Veterans Day
  2. Veteran’s Day
  3. Veterans’ Day

A. Veterans Day (choice a, above). Veterans Day does not include an apostrophe but does include an “s” at the end of “veterans” because it is not a day that “belongs” to veterans, it is a day for honoring all veterans.

Interesting reasoning, but I think it’s flawed for two main reasons. First, there’s the fact that the apostrophe-s ending in English does not merely denote possession or ownership, despite the fact that it is commonly called the possessive case or ending. As Arnold Zwicky is fond of saying, labels are not definitions. Historically, the possessive ending, or genitive case, as it is more formally known, has covered a much wider range of relationships than simply possession, such as composition, description, purpose, and origin. In Old English the genitive was even used to form adverbs, producing forms like our modern-day towards, nowadays, since, and once (the -ce ending is a respelling of an original -s from the genitive case marker). So obviously the possessive or genitive ending is not just used to show ownership, despite the insistence that if something doesn’t belong to someone, you can’t use the apostrophe-s ending.

Second, they would have us believe that “veterans” is an attributive noun, making “Veterans Day” a simple noun-noun compound, but such compounds usually don’t work when the first noun is plural. In fact, some linguists have argued that noun-noun compounds where the first element is plural are generally disallowed in English (see, for example, this piece), though there are exceptions like fireworks display. Sometimes compounds with irregular plurals can work, like mice trap, but few if any English speakers find rats trap acceptable. The Chicago Manual of Style has this to say:

The line between a possessive or genitive form and a noun used attributively—to modify another noun—is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural. Although terms such as employees’ cafeteria sometimes appear without an apostrophe, Chicago dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) that do not use one or where there is clearly no possessive meaning. (7.25)

Again they fall prey to the idea that in order to use a genitive, there must be possession. But they do make an important point—the line does seem to be fuzzy, but I don’t think it’s nearly as fuzzy as they think. If it weren’t for the fact that the genitive ending and the regular plural ending sound the same, I don’t think there’d be any confusion. After all, even if people argue that it should be veterans hospital rather than veterans’ hospital, I don’t think anyone would argue that it should be children hospital rather than children’s hospital. But because they do sound the same, and because some people have gotten it into their heads that the so-called possessive ending can only be used to show that something belongs to someone, people argue that veterans must be a plural in a noun-noun compound, even though such compounds are generally not possible in English.

Of course, the question of whether or not there should be an apostrophe in Veterans Day is ultimately an incredibly trivial one. Like so many others, I’m grateful for the service given and sacrifices made by those in the armed forces, particularly my two grandfathers. As far as I’m concerned, this day does belong to them.

Usage 11 Replies to “Attributives, Possessives, and Veterans Day”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


11 thoughts on “Attributives, Possessives, and Veterans Day

    Author’s gravatar

    “After all, even if people argue that it should be veterans hospital rather than veterans’ hospital, I don’t think anyone would argue that it should be children hospital rather than children’s hospital.”

    +1 insightful.

    Author’s gravatar

    I think the apostrophization 🙂 of Veterans Day has a definitive, though unsatisfying, answer: it’s defined by law (as “Veterans Day”), and therefore I think qualifies as a title which you would quote verbatim.

    Author’s gravatar

    Oh, I know what the law says. I just think it’s based on crappy linguistic analysis. 😉

    Author’s gravatar

    I’ve tried to come up with more noun-noun phrases that have a plural in the first position. It ain’t easy, but I got at least a couple:

    geese enclosure (which is, I admit sometimes called “goose enclosure” and had me thinking of “cattle pen” which is not a writing implement at all.)

    freshmen dorm (which is admittedly less frequent than the singular “freshman dorm”, but is seen sometimes).

    data repository I will defend the construction of “data” as plural, so I think this one counts. And it gives us the nice transition to some incipient compound words such as database and dataset (which are arguably singular). Go figure.

    I tried to come up with ones where the plural is NOT irregular but has the “s” added as you showed for “fireworks display”. Couldn’t think of a single one and I felt rather “squicky” inside trying on a few that obviously didn’t work.

    Great article! Thanks!

    Author’s gravatar

    How about Teachers College (in New York City), Consumers Union, citizens band radio (as shown in the AP Stylebook), Publishers Weekly, and Diners Club?

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for writing about the awful sound of most plural attributive nouns. I find them all the time editing the writing of civil servants and contractors for NASA. The one I have all but given up on is “requirements document.” The writers assert that it’s a document containing multiple requirements. I argue back that a jar is for multiple cookies.

    Author’s gravatar

    Bob: Fireworks works, but notice that it practically never appears as a singular. We hardly ever talk about seeing a firework. So the singular isn’t really an option there, nor is it with some other words like arms. Two nations could sign a nuclear arms treaty but not a nuclear arm treaty, because the noun arms doesn’t really have a singular.

    Amy: I’d say all of those should be possessives, too, either singular or plural.

    Debby: I’d guess that in the minds of those writers, requirements is probably more along the lines of fireworks and arms, where it’s morphologically plural but never or rarely appears in singular form. I don’t think it’s to that point yet, but it might be moving in that direction.

    […] that employs some grammatically suspect reasoning in its official spelling—Veterans Day officially has no apostrophe because the day doesn’t technically belong to veterans. But this is silly—apostrophes […]

    Author’s gravatar

    An “antiques warehouse” as in a warehouse where antiques are sold. In contrast, an “antique warehouse” would be a warehouse that is itself antique.

      Author’s gravatar

      This is a good example of the exception to the general rule that attributive nouns are singular. Singular nouns are not used when the singular form means something different.

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