Arrant Pedantry

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Mother’s Day

Today is officially Mother’s Day, and as with other holidays with possessive or plural endings, there’s a lot of confusion about what the correct form of the name is. The creator of Mother’s Day in the United States, Anna Jarvis, specifically stated that it should be a singular possessive to focus on individual mothers rather than mothers in general. But as sociolinguist Matt Gordon noted on Twitter, “that logic is quite peccable”; though it’s a nice sentiment, it’s grammatical nonsense.

English has a singular possessive and a plural possessive; it does not have a technically-plural-but-focusing-on-the-singular possessive. Though Jarvis may have wanted everyone to focus on their respective mothers, the fact is that it still celebrates all mothers. If I told you that tomorrow was Jonathon’s Day, you’d assume that it’s my day, not that it’s the day for all Jonathons but that they happen to be celebrating separately. That’s simply not how grammatical number works in English. If you have more than one thing, it’s plural, even if you’re considering those things individually.

This isn’t the only holiday 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 are used for lots of things beyond simple ownership.

It could be worse, though. The US Board on Geographic Names discourages possessives altogether, though it allows the possessive s without an apostrophe. The peak named for Pike is Pikes Peak, which is worse than grammatical nonsense—it’s an officially enshrined error. The worst part is that there isn’t even a reason given for this policy, though presumably it’s because they don’t want to indicate private ownership of geographical features. (Again, the apostrophe doesn’t necessarily show ownership.) But in this case you can’t even argue that Pike is a plural attributive noun, because there’s only one Pike who named the peak.

The sad truth is that the people in charge of deciding where or whether to put apostrophes in things don’t always have the best grasp of grammar, and they don’t always think to consult someone who does. But even if the grammar of Mother’s Day makes me roll my eyes, I can still appreciate the sentiment. In the end, arguing about the placement of an apostrophe is a quibble. What matters most is what the day really means. And this day is for you, Mom.

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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.