The punctuation puzzle that is President(?) Day
Today is a holiday; that much we know. But what exactly is that holiday called? Is it President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? Presidents Day? Or something else entirely?
It all started with George Washington, who was born in 1731 – or maybe 1732. The holiday we celebrate on the third Monday in February began as a tribute to the country’s first president, whose birthday occurred on February 11 (of one year or another). When he died in 1799, the young nation’s leaders decided Washington’s Birthday would henceforth be a national holiday.
However, North America converted from the Julian calendar to the more widely accepted (and 11-days-ahead) Gregorian calendar while GW was still among the living, so his birthday became February 22. He was presumably okay with this change, and when he died the holiday was set for his new and improved birthday.
When Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, Washington’s Birthday was assigned to the third Monday in February. That had the unfortunate effect of making Washington’s Birthday a holiday with no mathematical possibility of occurring on February 22. As the third Monday, it appears somewhere between February 15 and February 21 every single year.
Nevertheless, the federal government still lists the holiday as Washington’s Birthday. But most people don’t know that, and why would they? It’s usually referred to as President’s Day…or Presidents’ Day…or Presidents Day. Because face it, we’ve had a lot of presidents and some of them have been pretty notable. And also, because Washington’s Birthday seems like an awfully silly name for a holiday that has no chance of happening on Washington’s birthday.
With no official designation for the holiday as most Americans know it, the name has become a matter of opinion. Individuals, businesses and states are all free to pick and choose, which they do with reckless abandon.
The businesses that advertise ubiquitous sales around the holiday are equally divided between President’s Day, Presidents’ Day and the apostrophe-free Presidents Day. Individual states have their own take as well, with some in every camp regarding the presence and placement of apostrophes.
Some states manage to avoid the apostrophe conundrum entirely, but in the process just add more fuel to the what-do-we-call-this-holiday bonfire. New York sticks with the traditional Washington’s Birthday, Virginia calls it George Washington Day and a handful of other states expand the name to include other presidents (or even non-presidents, in the case of Arkansas).
Even the authorities we can usually turn to for clarity disagree on preferred nomenclature: Chicago Manual of Style suggests Presidents’ Day while the AP Stylebook considers Presidents Day to be the correct presentation.
Call it what you will, because this is one issue both the federal government and the arbiters of grammar leave open to interpretation. Enjoy the holiday under whatever name it goes by in your state. Just make sure to avoid buying any discounted cantaloupe’s, tires’ or mattress’es in all the excitement.
Sarah – great article and an interesting read. I had no idea that President’s Day has absolutely no chance of ever falling on Washington’s real birthday. LOL
Thanks, Richard! I was surprised to learn how much complexity this holiday holds too.
Educational! I had all mixed up with Valentine’s Day and Arizona statehood day ( February 12) in my elementary school mind. But the lack of a precise solution is frustrating to the grammar perfectionist’s mind. Were the last three examples from actual ads?