Happy Father’s Day. Or Fathers’ Day?

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.

Corpus searches appear to confirm this advice: both the Corpus on Contemporary American English and the massive iWeb corpus return very few results for fathers’ day. So, it’s Father’s Day, right?

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.)

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

26 thoughts on “Happy Father’s Day. Or Fathers’ Day?”

  1. It really has to be Fathers’ Day because it is celebrated by all fathers.
    However, the Online Etymological Dictionary says:
    Father’s Day dates back to 1910 in Spokane, Wash., but was not widespread until 1943, in imitation of Mother’s Day.
    So it is an American invention so may not necessarily follow what we would expect!

  2. Tim, thanks for adding the historical perspective! Presumably this dictionary takes “widespread” to mean widespread across the US — I wonder whether it took off more quickly anywhere else? Especially since Fathers’ Day is the same date in both the US and the UK, unlike Mothers’ Day, which is off by 3 months!

    It just struck me that both mother’s/mothers’ and father’s/fathers’ days might (just might) be written that way by analogy with Valentine’s Day, which is correctly punctuated as long as you read Valentine as the name of the amorous saint, rather than the modern use meaning Valentine’s Day cards.

    I can’t think of any other example where American English uses the apostrophe different from other varieties of English.

  3. “Father`s Day” can not be right unless you are referring to one father. We can talk about Our father`s cart, our father`s house, our father`s money, our father`s children, and our Heavenly Father`s love.

    What we are talking about here can only be Fathers Day without an apostrophe, where it means a day for plural fathers in general (the Day for Fathers, whoch is how the Spanish say it). If it is a day that belongs to all fathers then it should be in the possesive form of Fathers, which an apostrophe after the “s” because you can`t write “fathers`s). I would be happy with Fathers Day or Fathers` Day in this context, but not “father`s Day”.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Terry. I see a problem with your analysis, though: English does not usually permit plural noun modifiers (unlike some languages). So, for example, we say “house sales” not *”houses sales”

      The only way you can have a plural noun in front of another noun is if it’s a possessive: “students’ schedules are available …”. In that case, the possessive takes the slot of the determiner (cf: “your schedules”).

      So, although “Fathers Day” is an elegant solution, I’m not sure how to explain its syntax. How would it be different from “Fathers’ Day”?

      I do think there is a question of meaning at the root of all this — a day for (my) father or for all fathers.

      Perhaps we can all solve this conundrum before this year’s father(‘)s(‘s) day!

      1. How do you explain veterans day then? How do you explain the syntax of that hmm?

        From Nigel: I don’t — in the original post, I quoted this: “‘Veterans Day’ is plural but not possessive, for historical reasons shrouded in mystery.” More on this below…

  4. I think Terry’s Day for Fathers is a good point. Now, Nigel, I am trying to think of an exception to plural noun modifiers. I feel like I am going to be nagged by this for a few days! But then again, maybe Fathers Day is that exception!

    How does cattle sale fit in?

    1. Cattle is singular (non-count)!

      The example that crosses my mind is “teachers book” or “teachers room.” I really want an apostrophe for the reasons I mentioned above. But perhaps usage has overtaken us … There is still a question of meaning, I think.

  5. Even without researching, I’ve always used “Fathers’ Day” instead of “Father’s Day.” I’ve always found “Father’s Day” incorrect since the day must be for all fathers. This is the first time I searched blogs for opinions about the correct possession because just yesterday in the Philippines I got sick of reading my friends’ texts and wall posts of “Happy Father’s Day to your Dad”. I was the only one who thought it should be “Fathers’ Day”. Anyway, since I’m an English major, I think I should do further research and ask my professors about it.

  6. Goodness me — there have been over 200 hits on this page this week in time for Father’s/Fathers’ Day! Apostrophes clearly hit a nerve despite their limited meaning-creating potential. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw was right, and we should just get rid of the apostrophe altogether!

    I don’t think it’s a question of “correct” or “incorrect” — I’m not interested in grammatical pedantry, and it’s clear that both forms are in current use and are meaningful. What’s interesting to me is that the position of the apostrophe is systematic because either place creates a slightly different meaning to the day.

    This doesn’t mean that any usage is correct, of course. I wince when I see posts on Facebook wishing “all the Dad’s out there …” anything at all. Ouch.

    I would like to know more about the growth in plural noun modifiers — teachers book, Veterans Day (as mentioned by Jim, above). Can anyone think of any other examples?

    Thanks for all the feedback and keep reading. I’m going back to work on my actual grammar textbook, although this is much more fun!

  7. There are many examples of plural noun modifiers: sales tax, communications hub, sports day, armed forces corp, United States government, the list goes on.
    What about “goat’s cheese” or “goats’ cheese”? How many goats are involved?

    1. Ted, thanks for these interesting examples.
      Sales tax — I don’t think “sales” is plural. I think it’s a non-count noun ending in -s (cf: “I work in sales”) — rather like physics or [BrE] maths.
      United States government — again, there is no singular (United State?), so I’m not sure what this example would mean.
      Communications hub and armed forces corp are good examples of a plural noun modifier. I do suspect that in both cases the reason may be that the nouns don’t exist with the same meaning in the singular. Communication and communications are not simply singular/plural.

      I’m afraid I think I say goat cheese (no plural or possessive). Is that British English?

      1. Hi Nigel, thanks for the reply. I take your point about “goat cheese” but disagree about “sales” – a shopkeeper would say “how MANY sales have we had today?” and “sales ARE going up”. Other examples are “careers fair”, “weapons programme”, “Six Nations rugby” (I am British btw). “United States government” is a bit like “glasses case” or “police car” or “clothes market” – there is no singular so the modifier has to be plural.
        About the original question, all three variants are grammatically acceptable but i think “Father’s Day” is preferable. It doesn’t refer to one father, it refers to the generic noun and encompasses all instances of it (if that makes any sense). E.g. “the blue whale is the largest animal in the world” doesn’t mean there’s only one blue whale in the world. “I like going to the theatre” – doesn’t mean I only go to one theatre.
        I’d be interested to hear your comments.

  8. As an editor of a newspaper about to publish a feature on Father’s/Fathers’/Fathers day I would really like to know which is most correct! At this point I’m learning towards Hallmark, although I would prefer to use Fathers’… 😉

      1. At my primary school we are asking the children to make a card for his / her dad in which case I feel they should write Happy Father’s Day because it is a message to one dad from his child, but our invitation to the celebration is advertised as Fathers’ day celeb, because it’s to them all. Will this do!?

      2. Great solution, although some child is going to complain about the inconsistency! Since I take a descriptive rather than a prescriptive view of language, I’m interested in what is done rather than what should be done. (The punctuation police are an irritating myth inspired by a certain book about eating, shooting, and leaving, which I’d rather forget.)

        Since my initial post, a dozen US states including my own (Delaware) have passed “marriage equality” (aka same-sex marriage) laws. I’m curious whether this will subtly change the punctuation — for kids with two dads, Fathers’ Day is clearly accurate.

Leave a Reply to Anne Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: