Update: Six years after posting, this remains the most popular entry on my blog, largely because once a year it starts to get hundreds of hits for about 3 days! I’m refreshing the content this year and removing some dubious Google search data (June 2016). Also refreshed June 2019 with new corpus searches.
My then two-year-old son gave me this great father’s day card in 2010 (I think mummy helped …), but the wording on the front got me wondering about a small grammar point: is it Father’s Day or Fathers’ Day? (That is, the day for daddy, or for all fathers?)
Pronunciation doesn’t help (the apostrophe is seen by very rarely heard) and even using quotation marks on Google doesn’t distinguish between the two positions of the apostrophe.
So, I went to the source of it all: Hallmark, the greetings card company that has become an eponym for named days (Hallmark holidays). And sure enough, their standard phrasing is Father’s Day, which hasn’t changed since 2010 when I first looked.
But on the other side, there’s a Robin Williams movie from 1997 called Fathers’ Day.
A quick search reveals a lot of advice about the position of the apostrophe in this phrase — apostrophes are a common source of obsession for grammar pedants. Here’s the note from a fairly reliable site:
A number of American Holidays have possessive forms, and are peculiarly inconsistent. “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” are easy enough, one parent at a time, and “Parents’ Day” is nicely pluralized, as is “Presidents’ Day” which celebrates the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln. “All Souls’ Day (Halloween),” of course, takes a plural possessive. “Veterans Day” is plural but not possessive, for historical reasons shrouded in mystery. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has no possessive. “New Year’s Day,” “St. Valentine’s Day,” St. Patrick’s Day,” and “April Fool’s Day” all have their singular possessive form, and so, while we’re at it, does “Season’s Greetings.” Note that “Daylight Saving Time” is neither possessive nor plural.
I’m not sure it is this simple, though. In French, today is la fête des pères (Fathers’ Day), presumably because while a person may have only one father, it is all dads who are being fêted today.
Plus, more importantly, the assumption of “one parent at a time” falls somewhere between outdated and discriminatory: with divorce and remarriage widespread (thus, the day of dads and stepdads), marriage equality the law of several lands (thus, the day of two to four dads), and growing sensitivity to gender fluidity (thus, transparent dad), I now feel that the most inclusive solution is to take out a marker and a bottle of Wite-Out (Tippex for fellow Brits) and change Father’s to Fathers’ Day. Of course, if your father is not a grammar teacher, you can probably skip the apostrophe altogether, a luxury my own kids don’t have.
So, however you write it, happy holiday to my dad and all dads out there!
(And if you read this far, a shameless plug that the second edition of my book Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers includes a new section with everything you ever wanted to know about apostrophes in academic writing.)