Is There an Apostrophe in Presidents’ Day?

Monday, February 15, is Presidents’ Day, and many people will spend some time thinking about the accomplishments of our US Presidents.

Some people will also be thinking about that apostrophe: Presidents’ Day.  Why does the apostrophe go after the “s” – and is it really necessary?

Let’s deal with placing the apostrophe first. The US government uses the apostrophe, but not everyone does. I just saw a Volkswagen ad for a Presidents’ Day sale that didn’t use the apostrophe. This is another example of our ever-changing language: Sometimes apostrophes disappear, and possessive nouns become adjectives.

But officially it’s Presidents’ Day. The apostrophe goes after the “s” because we’re honoring Presidents. If we were honoring a single President, it would go after the “t”: President’s Day.

Apostrophes are easy to do (despite what you may remember from school!). Spell the word, and put the apostrophe after the last letter. This trick will work every time.

teacher = teacher’s

teachers = teachers’

people = people’s

puppy = puppy’s

puppies = puppies’

Dan = Dan’s

Louis = Louis’ (or Louis’s)

Let’s go on to the second question: Why is the apostrophe necessary? The answer is that there’s an “of” hidden here: It’s really the Day of the Presidents. Any time you have an “of” idea, use an apostrophe: cat of Joan = Joan’s cat. Pay of a week = a week’s pay.

This may be different from what you heard in school. Teachers often say that apostrophes show ownership, but that can be misleading. For example, take a look at this sentence:

Don’t sit there: That’s Mary’s seat.

Chances are Mary doesn’t own that chair! But it’s the chair of Mary because she usually sits there.

Click here to learn more about apostrophes. You can try a practice activity here, and I’ve posted a presentation about apostrophes here.

Enjoy this wonderful holiday!

Presidents' Day

 Presidents’ Day

Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok Instant Quiz ANSWER

Put the apostrophe after the “s” in Adams. The name Adams ends with an “s.” The apostrophe always goes after the last letter of a word or name. If you can spell a person’s name, you’ll get the apostrophe right every time!

President John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth US President.  CORRECT

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from and other online booksellers.

What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed

“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go


A Question about “Whose”

Yesterday a friend raised an interesting issue about the word whose. She sent me a sentence similar to this one and asked what I thought of it:

Acme is the only local company whose ads are created by a New York agency.

She’d been told whose is appropriate only for sentences about people. If you follow that reasoning, you couldn’t use whose in a sentence about a company – or a dog, a building, or a town.

I wrote back that the sentence was fine and whose can be used in a wide variety of situations. But I want to raise an additional issue today: Who decides these things – and how?

I know people who panic and moan “There are no rules anymore!” any time someone challenges a usage practice they hold dear.

So I want to talk about the process I followed before I answered my friend’s question.

  1.  I checked my own experience. I have a doctorate in English and I’ve published with some prestigious organizations. I’m also a member of the editorial board for a scholarly journal.  So my opinion carries some weight. My verdict: The sentence is fine.
  2. I went to my bookshelf and looked up whose in my copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a widely respected reference book. Fowler’s comment: The prohibition against using whose with non-human antecedents is a “folk belief.”
  3. Just for good measure, I looked up whose in the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces how  words have changed over the centuries and provides examples. The OED, as it’s affectionately called, is now available as a searchable database through many libraries. So instead of having to make a trip to the library, I looked up whose on my home computer. And I learned that both Shakespeare and Milton used whose in sentences with non-human antecedents:

    Shakespeare Hamlet i. v. 15,   I would a tale unfold, whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul.
    Milton L’Allegro in Poems 33   Mountains on whose barren brest The labouring clouds do often rest.

My conclusion: The sentence is fine.

Acme is the only local company whose ads are created by a New York agency.  CORRECT

Richard Burton in Hamlet

Richard Burton in Hamlet




Today’s post was inspired by something I noticed in yesterday’s Snuffy Smith comic strip. Loweezy (Snuffy’s wife) is telling an unhappy little Tater “It takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown.”

That sentence bothered me, and I was still thinking about it this morning. It’s an interesting problem: The strip was too grammatical. Here’s how the characters in the Snuffy Smith strip usually speak: “Prob’ly warning ‘em not to tangle wif US!!” Loweezy, a minimally educated resident of Hootin’ Holler, would have said “less muscles.” 

We English teachers keep insisting that good English usage is akin to a moral issue: It’s the right thing to do. I’m thinking that there’s another, deeper reason for paying attention to usage: You don’t want to distract your readers. They should be paying attention to what you wrote rather than how you wrote it (unless you’re a postmodern author – but that’s a subject for another post).

I recall reading a mystery novel that drove me crazy because the main character was an English teacher who was telling the story in her own words.  She made several pronoun errors and constantly misspelled all right. That’s not how English professors write. (Interestingly, the book was done by a fine publisher that seems to have laid off its copyeditors to save money.)

Loweezy and Tater started me thinking about other distractions. Here’s one. Before I get into it, I need to explain that I hate the word respective. It’s almost always unnecessary, and writers who use it sound pompous.

I also need to explain that I adore Carole King (yes, I checked to make sure she spells Carole with that final “e”!). She has three marvelous things going for her – she co-wrote the song”Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” she published a wonderful memoir (A Natural Woman), and she always looks like she’s having an absolutely fabulous time.

Back to respective. She used it no less than seven times in her book, always unnecessarily. I read the book quickly, so I was very aware that the respectives kept coming. Why, Carole, why?

Can I give you an example? I defy you to give me a reason why there’s a respective in this sentence about Sir Paul McCartney’s delightful mimicry during an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman:

Playing the respective roles of David Letterman and Paul Shaffer, McCartney completely captured the essence of both men.

Can we do one more? You may have heard of Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a terrific writer who’s also Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law. In 1976 Marjorie published They Came to Stay, the true-life story of how she adopted two little girls from Asia. It’s a wonderful book, but one thing drove me crazy: Every time she sat down, she said she “slipped” into a chair. That’s fine once or twice, but after a while I started imagining her stepping on a banana peel and whizzing across the floor. Just sit down, dammit!

OK, I’m almost finished – but please let me make one more point. I think my English-teacher rants over the years missed an important angle. I kept talking about good usage as an abstract idea. The more important factor is that good usage sweeps away the distractions so that readers can settle back and enjoy what you’re reading. Forty years later, do you really want your audience to picture you slipping on a banana peel?

A Natural Woman 2




A Spelling Question for You

I’m using a different format for today’s Instant Quiz: A headline from a 3/22/15 New York Times Magazine article about Ben Carson. Your job is to find the mistake.


Did you notice that minuscule is misspelled? And are you as shocked as I was? This is The New York Times Magazine, for heaven’s sake! Theodore Bernstein (a famed NYT copyeditor who wrote some marvelous books about writing) would have fainted.

How could this happen? My suspicion is that the New York Times is saving money by cutting back on its editing staff. I would also guess (although I can’t be sure) that the person who did the headline was chided afterwards for not using a spellchecker. Surely many readers pointed out the misspelling.

Spelling and spellcheckers have been on my mind lately, and that’s unusual for me. I’m a natural-born good speller (nothing to be proud of, unfortunately – there’s no correlation to intelligence). The only words I consistently have trouble with are those with double letters. I have to look up Cincinnati every time, for example.

But here’s the point: Even though it’s a nuisance, I continue to look up those words…over and over, again and again. I know my limitations, and I don’t trust my memory.

I had a shock a couple of days ago when I uploaded the Kindle file for my latest book, What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You. The website posted a notice that I had 13 spelling errors. Turns out all those errors came from a “Can you spot the  errors?” activity in my book. I was pleased that Kindle allowed the mistakes to stand after I approved them.

This please-use-correct-spellings policy is new to the Kindle website, and I heartily approve. Too many self-published books are rife with errors. I was on another self-publishing website one day and spotted a book with a spelling error in a common word in the title.

But we should remember that this fetish about spelling is relatively new to our language. Spelling used to be highly individualistic; nobody cared much about consistency. Shakespeare famously spelled his own name in various ways over his lifetime.

Back to minuscule (a word that, I confess, I used to misspell myself long ago when there were no computers and no spellcheckers). Here’s how I learned to get it right every time: Think about the word minus.

Some recommendations: Use the spellchecker even if you consider yourself a good speller. (Those little red lines have often saved me from embarrassment.) Be aware that spellcheckers aren’t infallible. If you don’t know how to spell a word, look it up. If you can’t find it in the dictionary, call a library and ask a reference librarian to look it up for you. (That’s what they’re paid to do!)

Bee Pixabay ok



Are Dictionaries Wrong?

Gene Weingarten is a columnist for the Washington Post who makes humorous observations about a wide variety of topics. He is a favorite in our household – my husband and I always look forward to Mondays, when his column appears in our local newspaper. When our newspaper dropped Weingarten’s column, there was such a howl of protest that it was quickly brought back.

Weingarten (like me) gets cranky about the path that English usage is taking.  His latest column  suggests, in a funny way, that today’s dictionary editors are idiots. You can read it here:

Weingarten has my sympathy. I too insist that infer and imply have different meanings, that irregardless is an ugly word, that it’s important to pronounce both r’s in library, and so on. But my commentary about these words is going to travel in a different direction.

First, he’s chosen the wrong enemy. His gripe is against lexicographers, not the editors of dictionaries. Lexicographers are researchers who chart changes in the way we define and use words over a period of time. Railing against them is about as useless as shaking your fist at a cartographer (a person who makes maps) because we no longer have a country named Bohemia. To put it differently: Shooting the messenger doesn’t change anything.

Weingarten wants us to go back to the 1959 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which was still taking a strong stand against all the linguistic usages that were bothering him. I shouted “Hallelujah!” and made a couple of fist pumps when I read his suggestion. But there are problems lurking beneath this apparently sensible idea.

First, back in 1959 there were just as many curmudgeons railing against the way language was changing. Off the top of my head, I can give you two examples. Enthuse, which experts condemned as a “back formation” from enthusiasm, was coming into widespread usage. Contact, which had always been a noun, was starting to be used as a verb. 

Here’s an uncomfortable fact that everyone who loves language has to learn to live with: There was never a golden age of language. Did you know that silly meant “innocent” 800 years ago? When silly began evolving into its present meaning, I’m sure there were cranks who complained bitterly about the deterioration of the English language.

Suppose, though, that we did manage to turn back the clock to 1959, limiting ourselves to the usages prescribed in the dictionary that Weingarten wants us all to use. Here’s what you’d find: A dingbat was a printer’s ornament. Software, burritos, and graffiti didn’t exist. The only people who talked about hybrids were biologists. Halloween was always written with an apostrophe (Hallowe’en).

Like Weingarten, I see changes rushing toward us that set my teeth on edge. The word woman is going to disappear eventually: More and more people are using women as both a singular and plural word. All right is going to be replaced by the one-word version that I despise so much that I’m not going to type it here. Although as a synonym for however will become accepted in formal writing.

What can we do about all this? Just sit back, take it all in, and marvel at the stubborn vitality of our wonderful language.

Dictionary Pixabay ok



Your Amazing Brain

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a longstanding gripe about the way writing is taught: Textbooks and curriculums don’t build on what students already know.

Here’s an example. Below are two incomplete sentences. Finish them any way you like – that’s not the point. Here’s what I want you to think about: Which version indicates that Marilyn wasn’t invited to the party? Choose A or B.

A)  Everyone was invited to the party, but Marilyn

B)  Everyone was invited to the party but Marilyn

You choose B), right? You could tell that in version A), Marilyn was invited but probably wouldn’t be able to come:

Everyone was invited to the party, but Marilyn had other plans that evening.

Everyone was invited to the party but Marilyn and Dennis.

Here’s my point: You know more than you think you do!

Now let’s build a rule out of what you just did. Any time you use and or but, stop and think: Are you starting a new sentence? If so, use a comma before you start your new sentence. (It acts just like a period.)

Everyone was invited to the party, but Marilyn had other plans that evening. [A new sentence follows but]

I had a hot fudge sundae, and Joe had a milkshake. [A new sentence follows and]

I had a hot fudge sundae and a root beer. [There’s only one sentence]

You can download a free handout about commas at this link

Neurons Kindle ok


Showcase Yourself!

Chances are your English instructors in high school (and college, if you’ve taken freshman English) didn’t talk much about showcasing yourself.

That’s unfortunate, and here’s why: When writers want to make a good impression, they don’t know how to do it. And here’s a question you should ask yourself: When don’t you want to make a good impression?

Most people (and probably you as well) sit down to write because they want to solve a problem, promote an idea, or share what they know. How often did your English instructors talk about that kind of writing?

The likely answer is “rarely.” English curriculums and textbooks are so busy teaching you how to do workbook exercises and master jargon that there’s little time left for the real business of writing – showcasing yourself, your ideas, and your accomplishments.

But out there in the career world, people really do think about showcasing themselves every time they write. Hmmm, they think. What did my English instructors care about? Sophistication, big words, complicated sentences. And they had this thing about word counts.

So they sit down and write something like this (an actual example from a law-enforcement article I just read):

In the case of subjects presenting with agitated-chaotic behavior, it is extremely important that officers not compress distance in approaching the subject unless exigent circumstances exist.  Case histories have clearly shown that distance compression with delirious and/or paranoid subjects significantly increases agitation, which in turn can exacerbate psycho-medical condition.

Let’s translate that into normal English:

When you’re working with a person who’s agitated or confused, don’t get too close, too quickly unless there’s an emergency. People who are delirious, paranoid, or both are just going to get more agitated, making the situation worse.

But won’t people think less of you if you say “don’t get too close” instead of “avoid distance compression”?

You can answer that question yourself. How good are you at figuring out when someone really knows what they’re talking about – versus someone who’s just a pompous blowhard?

I suspect that you’re an expert.

Start paying attention to the people you like and respect. Notice how they talk and write. You’ll soon realize that you’re focusing on what they know and how they present themselves, not their inflated vocabularies and tangled sentences.

Here’s the #1 principle for effective writing: Think about showcasing yourself and what you know. You won’t have time for overblown writing. And you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback you’ll start hearing. Try it!

Spotlight Dollar ok


Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir by Gail Godwin

I’ve just finished reading Publishing, Gail Godwin’s memoir about her career as a novelist, and I found it…disappointing. A comment from one of the Amazon reviewers sums up the book very well: “random” and “disconnected.”

Here’s an example: Early in the book Godwin mentioned her marriage to an engineer from England. He was never mentioned again. There was a single sentence about a second, short-lived and “peculiar” marriage. Later in the book she suddenly mentioned her longtime partner “Robert.” I flipped back through the pages to see who “Robert” was and when he’d been introduced. Nothing.

I’m not suggesting that Godwin should have written more about the marriages – the book is about her writing career, not her personal life. But if a writer is going to include personal information, it needs to be coherent.

Here’s another example: Godwin took a writing class with – hold on to your hat – Kurt Vonnegut. He was both helpful and nice, I’m happy to say. I enjoyed reading what Vonnegut had to say to Godwin during their conferences. But her book says nothing about what he talked about in this lectures. Those are jewels that beginning writers would love to read.

And I would love to have heard more about the partnership with her editors. For example, it would be fascinating to read a passage from a novel that benefited from editing. What did the editor say, how did Godwin react, and how did it all work out? What are the similarities and differences between editors she worked with?

If I’d had a chance to review Publishing before it went into print, I’d have asked Godwin to go back and fill in more about what happened while she was writing those novels. And I’m realizing that I need to do more of that kind of writing myself. What goes on inside our heads while we’re writing? How does it feel? How do we dig ourselves out when we get stuck?

There’s so much we can teach one another if we’re willing to  invest the time and be honest about the process.

51o4spW0pCL 2


Do College Freshmen Need Writing Skills?

Grammarly is conducting a poll about this question: Do you think a minimum standard of writing should be required to be admitted to a university?

So far 4,070 votes have been cast: 77% no, 6% yes, 16% “usually, but there are exceptions,” and 1% no opinion.

(I’m always intrigued by those “no opinion” voters. Why bother responding to a poll if you don’t have an opinion?)

I voted “yes.” I spent most of my career teaching developmental writing in a community college program. (The old name for what I taught was “remedial writing.”) Many students went on to terrific success in college. I remember one man who failed my developmental class repeatedly because his skills were so poor. He came back years later to tell me about the master’s degree he had just earned.

Developmental writing has always been with us. English teachers are always looking back wistfully to a kind of Golden Age when every student was a good writer. The truth is that there never was a Golden Age. I remember my astonishment when a speaker at a developmental writing conference told us that  100 years ago, Harvard had special classes for freshmen who were poor writers.

Many people lack confidence in their writing skills, no matter how successful they were in high school or college English classes. My question for them is this: What do you plan to do about it?

Help is always available. You can ask a friend or family member for feedback. You can call a librarian with questions. Nowadays you can use an electronic spellchecker or grammar checker as a guide. Google will find answers to usage questions for you. (I often use it that way myself.)

I used to tell my students to buy a sleeping bag and canteen and move into the learning lab at our college. Be a pest, I said. Tutors are available – use them.

My college even purchased access to live online tutors who would correspond with students about their writing.

Most students – all students, when you come down to it – know more about writing than they think they do. Here’s something that used to happen all the time in my classroom. A student would say something like this: “She done missed class because she don’t have nobody to give her a ride.” I would stare in mock disbelief – and seconds later an elegant revision would come out of the student’s mouth: “She missed class because nobody gave her a ride.”

Anyone who lives in the US gets plenty of exposure to Standard English via TV, radio, and movies. But many students feel powerless to do anything about the words that come streaming out of their brains. Once the words are written down, it’s too late to do anything about them – or so they think.

Sitting down with someone else to talk about what you’ve written is one of the best ways to improve your language skills. It doesn’t even have to be someone with a formal background in English. Because we all use language constantly, we can instantly tell when something isn’t working – and often we know how to fix it too.

So I say that we should let those students with poor writing skills come to colleges and universities. (Isn’t that what education is for?) Buy each of them a sleeping bag and canteen, show them where the learning lab is, and tell them to STAY THERE.

Trust me on this: They’ll all learn how to do college-level writing.

Graduate cartoon Pixabay ok