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Columbia Missourian

Apostrophe sparks Veterans Day conundrum

November 9, 2007 | 3:45 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Do you know which federal legal holiday is observed on Nov. 11?

Here are the choices:

1.) Veteran’s Day

2.) Veterans’ Day

3.) Veterans Day

Retail stores are having Veteran’s Day sales this weekend in time for what many calendars tell us is Veterans’ Day.

And, according to the federal government, this Sunday also happens to be Veterans Day.

Grammatically, any of the above versions could be correct, which is perhaps why the answer, resting on the placement (or nonuse) of a single apostrophe, remains open for debate.

Professor Pat Okker, chair of the MU English department, said the aforementioned holiday “is a great example of the power of punctuation,” because each of the variations connotes a different meaning.

Here’s where things get a bit complicated, grammatically.

* The first variation, “Veteran’s,” uses the singular noun in its possessive case, suggesting that the day ‘belongs’ to each veteran.

* The second variant, “Veterans’,” is the plural noun in the possessive case, which suggests that the day belongs to all veterans.

* The third variation, “Veterans,” is attributive, meaning the word functions as an adjective rather than a possessive noun.

By Professor Okker’s measure, No. 3 is the superlative choice.

“Since the first example (Veteran’s Day) would refer to only one veteran, that seems not to be the best choice,” Okker said.

Okker thinks Veterans’ Day is a “viable option” but ultimately favors “Veterans” because it not possessive.

“It suggests that it is a holiday that belongs to all of us to honor veterans,” Okker wrote in an e-mail. “To me, that is the appropriate meaning: Veterans Day isn’t a holiday just for some Americans; instead it is a national holiday for us all to honor veterans. The absence of the apostrophe, then, says a lot,” Okker wrote.

Matthew Gordon, associate chair of the English department at MU, is a linguist by training. “That means I spend more time worrying about why people use the language the way they do than worrying about what forms are supposed to be correct,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Nonetheless, his reasoning resembles Okker’s.

“Here, the question might be whether the holiday is about veterans or somehow belongs to them. It seems to me that either interpretation is defensible, but I like the first one and thus ‘Veterans Day,’” Gordon wrote.

“Also I tend to regard the apostrophe as an overrated piece of punctuation, but that’s a personal bias,” he added.

George Justice, associate dean of the MU English graduate school, also favors “Veterans” but eschews mechanics in offering his explanation.

“There’s no grammatical reason why it should make sense, but it’s common practice, and here (as in many cases) what is easy and works takes precedence over logic,” Justice wrote in an e-mail.

This common practice has historical roots.

During World War I, a temporary cessation of fighting between the Allies and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of Nov. 11, 1918.

On Nov. 11 of the following year, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first commemoration of Armistice Day; and in 1938 Congress passed legislation to declare Armistice Day a legal federal holiday.

Following World War II and the Korean War, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a proclamation in 1954 giving the holiday a more encompassing name: “Veterans Day.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (no apostrophe) continues to promote the attributive version, and offers the following explanation on its Web site: “Veterans Day does not include an apostrophe but does include an ‘s’ at the end of ‘veterans’ because it is not a day that ‘belongs’ to veterans, it is a day for honoring all veterans.”

A day for honoring our veterans — if not our English teachers.