Last Monday (Feb 16) was Presidents’ Day in the US. While I was editing a post on our American Presidents lessons, I wanted to double-check the capitalization and punctuation for this holiday. A Google search revealed disturbing results: Presidents’ Day, Presidents Day, and President’s Day were used almost equally! So which version is correct, and how can we explain it to our students?
If you consider other holiday names, such as Mother’s Day, Beatles Day, and April Fools’ Day, it’s easy to see where the confusion comes from. Even reference books sometimes disagree; for example, Merriam-Webster (American English) prefers April Fools’ Day, while Oxford Dictionaries (British English) prefer April Fool’s Day. Often it depends on how you want to look at it. Is it a day for one fool (April Fool’s Day) or all fools (April Fools’ Day)? Both are acceptable. Is it a day for our own mother (Mother’s Day) or all mothers (Mothers’ Day)? Again, both make sense, though we tend to focus on our own mothers.
Some holidays are a bit less complicated. Is it a day belonging to the Beatles (Beatles’ Day) or a day about the Beatles (Beatles Day)? In this case, Beatles Day makes more sense. St. Patrick’s Day celebrates one saint, as does Valentine’s Day. But what about Martin Luther King Day—why not Martin Luther King’s Day? Often the holiday name gets chosen and becomes the “correct” way—it doesn’t matter if other ways make sense too. It sure can lead to many errors made by both English language learners and native speakers!
The correct capitalization and spelling of this holiday is Presidents’ Day. Explain to students that this holiday now honors more than one president, so we can’t write President’s Day. But what about Presidents Day? This choice isn’t so easily dismissed. If we use our Beatles Day analogy, then we write Presidents’ Day because it is a day belonging to the presidents (specifically, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) more than a day about the presidents. But the concrete proof is in the reference books! Merriam-Webster and The Chicago Manual of Style both list this holiday as Presidents’ Day, so that’s what I would teach my students.
- American Presidents: Comprehensive lessons on each US president
- Ideas for using the American Presidents section
- Famous People: Lessons on some of the recent, popular presidents—we have low-intermediate and high-intermediate lessons on Barack Obama, and a beginner lesson is coming soon (end of March 2015)
- Podcasts from many of our American Presidents lessons
- When do we capitalize “President”? – Grammar rules
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