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February 20, 2001

Some newspapers and a few magazines offer up word teasers or mind games to amuse their readers. Reader’s Digest, for example, has a monthly feature called “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power.” I mention that particular one as an example, not because it gives me an excuse (ahem) to brag about my perfect score this month, but because it illustrates what I think is a pretty good idea. Namely, it shows us that striving toward a goal of always using our English language correctly is a worthwhile endeavor. Those games are for more than that. They can expand our vocabulary, stimulate an interest in new topics, and so forth. The Journal runs a crossword puzzle and cryptogram each day. They are there to challenge and amuse us, not merely to fill a space.

On alternate days, the daily newspaper in Oklahoma City runs a column entitled “Buck’s English.” Each column deals with a question from some reader regarding grammar, spelling or something else concerning our language. Sometimes it’s about the derivation of odd words or phrases that we take for granted without thinking of their origin. Buck, the columnist, responds with a semi-serious but brief explanation, and he frequently touches on things that have aroused my own curiosity.

I’ve been hoping that someone would ask Buck to discuss the correct use of the apostrophe “S” and, conversely, the “S” apostrophe, because that seems to be a bugaboo for a lot of people. A few years back, our governor’s wife, Kathy Keating, put together an interesting coffee table book about the official residences of each governor of the 50 states. The title was Our Governors’ Mansions, and it has been a popular piece of work. As the title states, it is a look at the public residences of each governor, but please note the use of “S” apostrophe. Unfortunately, some printed versions turned that around and put the apostrophe ahead of the “S.” Thus it appeared as Our Governor’s Mansions, and that mistakenly told readers that one governor has more than one mansion.

Used properly, with the apostrophe following the “S,” it indicated correctly that the book’s subject was a plural -- the residences of ALL the U.S. governors. Used improperly, with the apostrophe preceding the “S,” it meant that the subject was the residence of only ONE governor. “S” apostrophe is plural; apostrophe “S” is singular. That one little transposition made all the difference, and even The Daily Oklahoman, once a bastion of correct usage, got it wrong occasionally.

What brings this to mind today is the observance of Presidents’ Day on Monday. The occasion is a bit controversial anyway because it pays equal honor to ALL our presidents -- including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding and Bill Clinton -- on an equal basis, and there are some who believe that is unwarranted. I won’t argue the political correctness, but I do want to say that the correct name of the holiday is Presidents’ Day, with the “S” preceding the apostrophe. That usage tells us that it is a day honoring EACH president of the U.S. If the “S” followed an apostrophe it would appear as President’s Day, and that would mean only one president was being honored.

Well, as you can see, this subject already is getting too complicated for this limited space, so let me simply urge you to think about the proper placement of the “S” and the apostrophe the next time they are needed. In the meantime, let’s hope that Buck takes up the subject in one of his succinct future columns.