Word Court


Edward Dermon, of Roslyn Heights, New York, writes, "Certain holidays upset me because I find myself bombarded by grammatically incorrect advertisements. Obviously, Veteran's Day and President's Day are incorrect. But which is correct, Veterans' or Veterans? Presidents' or Presidents?"

Would that it were obvious to everyone that the forms Veteran's and President's must be wrong in the names of these holidays—though they are. These are singular possessives, which refer, respectively, to one veteran and one President. But logic takes us this far and no further, because a trend is well under way toward treating words in situations like these not as possessives but as attributive nouns. For instance, the United States has a number of local teachers unions whose official names lack apostrophes. The American Copy Editors Society doesn't use an apostrophe. You'd think teachers and copy editors would know. Then again, who's to tell the Young Men's Christian Association and New York City's Ninety-second Street Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association that their names are wrong?

We'd better ask the federal government about the holidays. The Web site for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management spells them Veterans Day and ... Washington's Birthday?? A note at the bottom of the Web page reads, "'Washington's Birthday' is the designated holiday in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees ... it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law." What's that about? Some say President Richard Nixon thought he had renamed the holiday but inadvertently failed to make the change official. Often cited as evidence is a piece in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in which Nixon explains he wanted to honor all Presidents, "even myself"—but its author, Michael Storey, is a humor columnist, not an investigative reporter. Regardless, the common term is now Presidents' Day, and even the White House uses it. Let's just not worry about it that the names of that holiday and Veterans Day aren't consistent with each other.

Delia Tasso, of Modena, Italy, writes, "On CNN this morning a military person was commenting on U.S. soldiers' finding barrels of chemicals intended for killing 'mosquitoes and ... airborne vermin.' I'm quite familiar with the former but have no idea what the latter is. Can you help me?"

The first mental image airborne vermin brought me was what you pictured too, I'll bet: rats with wings. But dictionaries make clear that vermin can include insects. For instance, one American Heritage Dictionary definition reads, "Various small animals or insects, such as rats or cockroaches, that are destructive, annoying, or injurious to health." So the only problem with your phrase is that maybe mosquitoes and ... vermin is redundant.

Jeremy Estabrooks, of Moscow, Russia, writes, "Nowadays instead of employing plethora to denote 'an excess of,' many writers seem to be using the term with the more positive meaning 'a plenitude of.' For example, in Mike Wallace's book A New Deal for New York the author envisages the construction of a 'magnificent new Fulton Center hub ... into whose aerated and reorganized chambers would flow a plethora of north-south lines.' Would we really like to stuff downtown New York with a plethora of new transportation lines? Is my understanding of this misuse correct?"

Yes, indeed, at least to the extent that dictionaries define plethora with words like "excess" and "superfluity." However, contemporary uses that are unambiguously intended to convey that meaning, as opposed to, simply, "a lot," are—well, let's just say there's no plethora of them. The brand-new Garner's Modern American Usage (the second edition of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner) admits that the word is often used "as if it were equivalent to plenty or many" but calls this "an unfortunate degeneration of sense." Garner suggests the rule of thumb that when plethora is preceded by a, as it is in your quotation from Mike Wallace, it's invariably the wrong word. But a review of recent citations in news databases suggests that even when it's preceded by the or another word, it doesn't often clearly mean anything like "too much" or "too many," as traditionalists think it should.

Stephen D. Marlowe, of Phoenix, writes, "When I attended the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, I took part in an intense debate about whether the word buttocks is plural. Is there such a thing as a buttock?"

Yes, there is, and if you're like most of us, you have two of them.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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