The difference between punctuating the possessive and the plural possessive can confuse a lot of writers. But in “Too Many Chiefs” in the Feb. 19 & 26, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg explains that it does not matter how one punctuates the federal holiday we celebrated in the United States last Monday.
According to some of the calendars and appointment books books floating around this office, Monday, February 19th, is Presidents’ Day. Others say it’s President’s Day. Still others opt for Presidents Day. Which is it? The bouncing apostrophe bespeaks a certain uncertainty. President’s Day suggests that only one holder of the nation’s supreme magistracy is being commemorated, presumably the first. Presidents’ Day hints at more than one, most likely the Sage of Mount Vernon plus Abraham Lincoln, generally agreed to be the greatest of them all. And Presidents Day, apostropheless, implies a promiscuous celebration of all forty-two: Jefferson but also Pierce, F.D.R. but also Buchanan, Truman but also Harding. To say nothing of the incumbent, of whom, perhaps, the less said the better.
So which is it? Trick question. The answer, strictly speaking, is none of the above. Ever since 1968, when, in one of the last gasps of Great Society reformism, holidays were rejiggered to create more three-day weekends, federal law has decreed the third Monday in February to be Washington’s Birthday. And Presidents’/’s/s Day? According to Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives, it was a local department-store promotion that went national when retailers discovered that, mysteriously, generic Presidents clear more inventory than particular ones, even the Father of His Country. Now everybody thinks it’s official, but it’s not.
So when is proper punctuation irrelevant? When the information it is punctuating is wrong.