On a singularly dull day in Hell, when the screams of tortured souls no longer gave Lucifer a thrill, he came up with a new form of torture: the apostrophe . It’s a brilliant piece of evil engineering because it takes up less than the merest dab of ink to pop it onto a piece of parchment, yet placing it in the wrong place can wreak maximum havoc on the sensibilities of gentle readers. And over-worked copy editors. It’s possible one of Satan’s most wickedly powerful dividers of nations ever invented.
Within the space of one week, we’re about to experience the full force of an apostrophe debate that will also generate more examples of that malevolent little mark all over the internet. February 14 and 16 are all set to become a grammatical confluence of biblical proportions. Perhaps.
Let’s start with the easier one: the case of St. Valentine and a celebration of
card sales love. According to one version of the legend, St. Valentine was a priest who was martyred by the Roman emperor Claudius II for being a Christian, and for performing marriage rites. In one of the more lurid descriptions of his death, he was first stoned and clubbed but when that failed to kill him he was beheaded. I’m not sure that’s ever been part of a Valentine card illustration – though in the interest of accuracy, I think Hallmark need to consider it.
His performing of marriages seems to fit in with the idea of love, but oddly St. Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy, fainting, plague, and bee keepers. Again, potential new avenues of exploration for the folks at American Greetings.
When we celebrate St. Valentine, we do so on St. Valentine’s Day, where the apostrophe comes before that final “s.” Why? Well, it’s because one of the accepted norms for using an apostrophe is that you use it before a final “s” to indicate the notion of possession; the idea that the
preceding succeeding noun belongs to the apostrophized previous thing. In this instance, this is a special day that “belongs” to St. Valentine. So you can have “the cat’s whiskers” because the whiskers belong to the cat; “the man’s coat,” because the coat belongs to the man; or “my brother’s wife,” because the wife belongs to my brother .
A second rule says that if you have more than one possessor, and the plural form ends with an “s,” you still put the apostrophe after the word but you can ignore a following “s.” Hence we can have “the dogs’ bone,” which is a bone shared by multiple canines; “the bishops’ fund,” which is a fund administered or used by a bench of bishops ; or “my brothers’ wives,” which is a clumsy way of referring to the collection of women owned by my brothers.
Valentine’s Day is, therefore, a pretty easy one. There is only one Valentine; it’s a day that is in some sense “owned” by him; so the apostrophe can happily nestle itself between the “e” and the “s” and copy editors can sleep at night. Sanity 1 – Satan 0.
But the Prince of Darkness is not yet done with us. He’s fully aware that although some folks will have trouble with Valentine’s Day, those who find it relatively easy have been lulled into a false sense of security. Lurking in the wings – or in this case, two days later – there is the day that even such luminaries as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) disagree on; Presidents Day or Presidents’ Day. Sanity 1 – Satan 1.
I know that our readers don’t come here to be subjected to stress, pain, or irritation (other than the mild form suffered when we say something outrageous or wrong) so let me take away any worries you’re having about which form to use here and now. The Associated Press Stylebook says “Presidents Day” with no apostrophe; the Chicago Manual of Style says “Presidents’ Day” with the apostrophe right at the very end. So the Dudes say; so go with the one you prefer!
So why the confusion – apart from Beelzebub’s delight in watching us all squabble and bicker? It’s really because of the way that nouns can, in some circumstances, behave as if they were adjectives. Specifically, it’s a type of noun called an attributive noun, which sounds like another Mephistophelian invention. For the most part, nouns are pretty solid, stalwart parts-of-speech, happy to be just what they are – low-frequency, limited meanings. A dog‘s a dog, a cat‘s a cat, and that’s about it. However, sometimes a noun will have the urge to buddy up to another noun to make a compound, and the one that goes first can change its behavior and act, temporarily, like an adjective.
Here are some examples of attributive nouns, where the first noun is being used to enhance the meaning of the second:
football player: Just using the noun player on its own may not be sufficient, so adding the noun football helps specify the type of player. Similarly we could have a baseball player, hockey player, and so on.
business lunch: Again, lunch on its own is OK in a generic sense but if you’re having lunch for the purpose of discussion business-related issues, then adding business as an attributive tightens up the meaning.
apple tree: Fairly obvious and by now needs no explanation.
If you want to do a quick check as to whether you’re seeing an attributive noun or an attributive adjective, try the following test:
Change <WORD 1><WORD2> to “The <WORD2> is <WORD1>”: does it make sense?
“The player is football,” “The lunch is business” and “The tree is apple” sound wrong. But if we had “aggressive player,” “free lunch,” and “tall tree,” applying the test would result in sensible sentences, therefore they are attributive adjectives, not attributive nouns.
All of this brings us back to why Presidents/Presidents’ Day is a challenge. If it is a day that “belongs” to Presidents, then the apostrophe should be used to indicate possession and therefore needs to be included at the end of the word. But if it’s a day “about” or “for” Presidents , then it’s being used as an attributive noun descriptor to enhance the meaning of “day,” and so needs no apostrophe.
The distinction is fine, and so is the interpretation – hence the disagreement between CMS and AP. But it is an instructive example of how words can shift not only their meaning but function, and even a humble noun can aspire to adjectivehood!
 Apostrophe comes from the Greek ἡ ἀπόστροϕος meaning “of turning away, or elision.” Often the apostrophe is used to mark where something is missing (elided) such as in can’t for cannot, the poetic o’er for over, or singin’ as a colloquialism for singing. It’s this sense of “missing something” that gave rise to its name as a punctuation mark.
 You’re right to guess that I put that one in on purpose, knowing full well that it’s somewhat un-PC. I could, of course, have used “My sister’s husband” and explained it as “because the husband belongs to my sister,” but that wouldn’t be as forceful in showing how grammar and punctuation rules regarding “possession” don’t care for social norms. Doubtless there are folks out there who would be all for having us change the language so as to avoid that notion of “owning” someone but that’s not going to happen. Grammatical possession is a little different from social possession.
 The most frequently cited collective noun for bishops is, indeed, a bench. Others include a sea of bishops and a psalter of bishops.
 The Presidents in question are apparently George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are Feb 22 and Feb 17 respectively. I say “primarily” because there is also the notion that it is a celebration of all US Presidents, and that this extended meaning is accepted by many people.
1. Eagle-eyed reader, Trish, pointed out I used preceding rather than succeeding in the original sentence. Whoops!