Learn the difference between adjectives and possessives.
This week in the United States we celebrate Veterans Day, a holiday to remember the end of World War I in 1918, but the name of the holiday brings up a common question: Do we need an apostrophe in the word “Veterans”?
The short answer is no, because the U.S. government gave the holiday its official name, and they chose to write it without the apostrophe, but in today’s episode, we’ll explore why it’s grammatically correct with or without an apostrophe.
Since many people are confused, you’ve probably seen "Veterans Day" written three ways:
The right way: Veterans Day
Another potentially right way: Veterans’ Day
The wrong way: Veteran’s Day
Avoid the Singular Possessive
Let’s address the wrong way first. If you put the apostrophe before the final “s” in “Veterans,” you’re making the singular word “Veteran” possessive. You’re saying it is the day of a single veteran or a day to celebrate a single veteran, and that’s clearly wrong. It’s a day for all veterans.
There are many phrases like “Veterans Day” where this issue comes up. You often see things like “writer's strike,” “homeowner's association” and “farmer's market” written with the apostrophe before the final “s” in the first word, and it’s wrong. All these phrases refer to groups--writers, homeowners, and farmers--they are not describing the strike, association, or market of a single person.
Some style guides, such as the Guardian Style Guide, do, however, remind us to use the singular form for phrases such as “writer’s cramp” and “collector’s item.” It’s the cramp of one writer and the item of one collector. When in doubt, check a good dictionary; it will often give you the correct spelling of such phrases.
An Apostrophe Makes a Plural Possessive
But it gets trickier with the remaining two choices. If you put an apostrophe at the end of the word “Veterans,” you’re making the plural possessive. You’re saying it is the day of the Veterans--the day that belongs to the Veterans--and that’s true, at least at some level.
Further, the possessive case is also called the genitive case, and its use isn’t limited strictly to possession in the “I own this car” kind of way. It can be used to show other kinds of relationships. For example, if I say “George is Juan’s brother,” “Juan’s” has an apostrophe “s” a the end, but I’m not implying that Juan owns George. Using “Veterans’” with an apostrophe at the end is certainly a legitimate way to describe Veterans Day.
No Apostrophe Makes “Veterans” an Adjective
If you don’t put an apostrophe at the end of “Veterans,” you’re using the word as an adjective that modifies “Day.” Just as “tree” tells you what kind of farm I’m talking about in the phrase “tree farm,” and “golf” tells you what kind of club I’m talking about in the phrase “golf club,” “Veterans” tells you what kind of day I’m talking about in the phrase “Veterans Day.” It’s also a legitimate way to describe the holiday. Nouns used as adjectives like this are sometimes called attributives.
I can’t find the reference, but I remember reading somewhere that it’s becoming more common for people to drop the apostrophe and choose the adjective form.
People Will Argue About Apostrophes
I should note that there are credible people who firmly believe an apostrophe is required on phrases such as “Veterans Day” and “farmers market.” It can be a contentious topic, and ultimately it’s a style choice. You may have to defend your choice no matter which one you make.
Deciding Whether You Want a Possessive or an Adjective
The key question I ask myself when deciding whether to use an apostrophe is to consider whether I’m truly talking about possession. If I am, I need an apostrophe. If I’m not, I use the adjective.
Capitalizing Holiday Names
Finally, “Veterans Day” is capitalized because it is the name of a holiday which makes it a proper noun. We capitalize the names of all official holidays in English.
“Apostrophes” Guardian Style Guide http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/a (accessed November 10, 2010)
“Genitive Case” The Chicago Manual of Style Online http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch05/ch05_sec019.html?para= (accessed November 10, 2010)
“Possessives and Attributives” The Chicago Manual of Style Online http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/PossessivesandAttributives/PossessivesandAttributives16.html (accessed November 9, 2010)
Capitalizing Proper Nouns