April 17, 2006

Patriots Day, Patriot's Day, and Patriots' Day

Happy Patriots Day, Patriots’ Day, or Patriot’s Day to all Language Log readers. Today is a holiday in Massachusetts (my state of residence for the 2005-2006 academic year while I'm enjoying a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University here in Cambridge; but Language Log does not observe holidays, so I am at work as usual). Today's holiday commemorates the battle in nearby Lexington and Concord which took place on April 19, 1775, and also the famous midnight warning ride of Paul Revere and William Dawes across this state. It is the day of the Boston Marathon (I will be running, of course, as a representative of the Language Log senior staff*). And like every other day, it is a day for us to reflect a little upon the topic of linguistic correctness. Because while neighbourhoods.net says "Patriots Day" and the Boston Athletic Association says "Patriots’ Day", holidayorigins.com says "Patriot’s Day". Which is correct?

Wikipedia is correct: it notes all three spellings. The thing is, you see (oh dear, the purists are going to hate me), all three phrases are fully grammatical, so the only thing that's at issue is which of the three phrases is standardly used to refer to the day in question, and the answer is that all three of them are in common use.

Why are they all grammatical?

  • Patriots Day uses the plural noun patriots as an attributive modifier in a singular noun phrase with the head noun day, as in weapons cache or activities center.
  • Patriot’s Day uses the genitive singular noun patriot’s as the determiner in a singular noun phrase with day as head, as in my MTV, or in Jeeves's description of his profession, gentleman's gentleman.
  • Patriots’ Day uses the genitive plural noun patriots’ as the determiner in a singular noun phrase with day as head, as in workers' pay or ladies' room.

Grammar sets the bounds of what is possible in the language (and discovering what the grammatical rules are involves a very tricky empirical investigation concerning which we have to be fallibilists: linguists must recognize that at any given stage they may not yet have identified the rules correctly, though that doesn't mean it can't be done). People choose which of the grammatical phrases and sentences in (their variety of) English they will deploy for what purposes. Probably between a billion and two billion people will use English at some time today. They don't all agree on precise details (to say the least). They won't agree on which of the three phrases just discussed is the real name of today's holiday (apostrophe use is a very shakily grasped aspect of English spelling and grammar anyway, and of course phonetically the three phrases are exactly the same, so the matter only emerges in writing).

One other thing (and this was added later): What I just said is not in any way in conflict with the observation that one group of speakers of English have a rather special status: the legislators of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And Jim Gordon has pointed out to me that what they said (General Laws of Massachusetts, Part I, Title II, Chapter 6, Section 12J) was this:

Section 12J. The governor shall annually issue a proclamation calling for a proper observance of April nineteenth as Patriots’ Day, in commemoration of the opening events of the War of the Revolution and the struggle through which the nation passed in its early days.

If you'd like to adopt that version, with Patriots’, on the grounds that it has been enshrined in law, that is very definitely a sensible usage decision to make. But if you think that choice was somehow mandated by English grammar, and the other two options are linguistically or logically mistaken and the people who use them are ignorant fools, you're wrong. And you're also wrong if you think government sources can be relied upon for grammatical consistency. Michael Greene points out to me that the Internal Revenue Service has a page announcing the extra day's grace that attributes it to "Patriot’s Day"; and I notice that the legend "N-2006-23, Patriots’ Day Filings and Payments (PDF K)" appears in a link further down on the same page! Trust no one; not even the IRS. Come to think of it, especially not the IRS.

* Some of the people who have been emailing me seem quite unaccountably to have drawn from this passing remark the inference that I will be doing a 26-mile run today. I am baffled at how they could have read this into what I said. I simply said "I will be running", and added that I am a representative of Language Log's senior staff. I didn't say "I will be an official participant in the Marathon." I merely meant that later on I will be running over from my Brattle Street office to the post office on Mt Auburn Street to mail something to Mark (today is not a Federal holiday, so the post office is open — though the Feds do recognize us Massachusetts residents as being on a holiday, so we, unlike you, actually have until tomorrow to submit our tax returns). Congratulations on running a marathon, indeed! Please try to read more carefully, all of you.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 17, 2006 10:26 AM