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President’s Day: A Singular Holiday?

By Jennifer Rappaport

When it comes to styling the holiday variously known as President’s Day, Presidents’ Day, and Presidents Day, authorities disagree not only about what to call the holiday but also about what the holiday celebrates.

The Federal Holiday

If you look up “Presidents’ Day” in Webster’s, you are directed to the entry “Washington’s Birthday,” the name of the federal holiday according to the National Archives (“Federal Holidays”). Webster’s notes that the holiday—celebrating George Washington, the first president of the United States—was previously celebrated on 22 February, Washington’s actual birthday (“George Washington’s Birthday”). It is now observed the third Monday in February, thanks to the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Law, established to designate Monday as the day to observe most federal holidays (Arbelbide).

The Holiday State by State

Although most states shifted the day of the holiday to Monday, not all took on the official federal holiday name (Arbelbide). For example, Minnesota calls the holiday “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday,” celebrating both Washington and Abraham Lincoln (Minnesota State, Legislature). The official state calendar for Alabama lists the holiday as “George Washington / Thomas Jefferson Birthday,” commemorating Thomas Jefferson as well as Washington (“2017 Holiday Schedule”). Washington State calls the holiday “Presidents’ Day,” “celebrated as the anniversary of the births of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington” (Washington State, Legislature).

The Holiday in Advertising

When the Uniform Monday Holiday Law took effect in 1971, “only two days separated Abraham Lincoln’s Friday birthday of February 12 from the Washington’s Birthday holiday that fell on February 15—the third Monday in February” (Arbelbide). Ever since, advertisers have taken advantage of the proximity of the two days to promote sales, referring to the holiday as “President’s Day,” “Presidents’ Day,” or “Presidents Day.”

The Holiday in Your Prose

So the correct way to refer to the holiday in your prose depends on your subject. If you are writing about the federal holiday, call it “Washington’s Birthday.” If you are writing about the holiday as it is observed in a particular state, consult the state’s official Web site. In other contexts, you might use one of the forms with “President” in the name. “President’s Day” uses the singular possessive, so you would likely use this form if you want to refer to a holiday celebrating Washington. “Presidents’ Day,” in the plural possessive, is the form recommended by The Chicago Manual of Style, so in our publications, we would generally use this spelling, which indicates a holiday celebrating Washington and at least one other president (“Holidays”). “Presidents Day” uses “Presidents” as an attributive noun—that is, a noun that acts like an adjective. A noun is attributive “when the relation between the plural head noun and the second noun could be expressed by the prepositions ‘for’ or ‘by’ rather than the possessive ‘of’”—for example, a teachers college is a college for teachers (Einsohn 137). If you want to refer to a holiday that is a day for celebrating all presidents of the United States, you might use this form.

Whatever you choose to call the holiday, 2017 is a good year to learn more about the American presidency and how “the personal, public, ceremonial and executive actions” of our presidents “have had a huge impact on the course of history” (“American Presidency”).

Works Cited

“The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian,

Arbelbide, C. L. “By George, It Is Washington’s Birthday!” Prologue Magazine, vol. 31, no. 4, Winter 2004. National Archives,

Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook. 2nd ed., U of California P, 2006.

“Federal Holidays.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 3 Jan. 2017,

“George Washington’s Birthday.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 24 Aug. 2016,

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., sec. 8.88, U of Chicago P, 2010,

Minnesota State, Legislature. 2016 Minnesota Statutes. Ch. 645, sec., subdivision 5. The Office of the Revisor of Statutes, 2016,

“Presidents’ Day.”, 2017,

“2017 Holiday Schedule.”, Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

“Washington’s Birthday.”, 2017,’s+birthday.

Washington State, Legislature. Revised Code of Washington. Ch. 1.16, sec. 050d. Washington State Legislature, Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

Published 17 February 2017

MLK Day the MLA Way

By Jennifer Rappaport

Martin Luther King Day? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? MLK Day? There seems to be no consensus on how to style the name of this federal holiday, established to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. In deciding how to treat the name of the holiday, you should consider your audience and the purpose of your reference.

Consider also the consistent treatment of King’s name in your work. Both “Martin Luther King Jr.” (without a comma before the suffix) and “Martin Luther King, Jr.” (with a comma) are acceptable variations, but in MLA style, a comma always precedes Jr. (read more about suffixes and names in an earlier post).

Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The National Archives calls the holiday “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” following the federal policy to use “the name designated by the law” that established the holiday (“Federal Holidays”). If your goal is to consistently and accurately refer to the text of the legislation, for legal, historical, or archival reasons, use this version.

Martin Luther King Day

Merriam-Webster’s and The American Heritage Dictionary both omit Jr. in the name of the holiday, calling it “Martin Luther King Day,” but not in their entries for the man whom the holiday commemorates. If you want to avoid a discrepancy between King’s name and the holiday celebrating his birthday, you might use a different treatment. Treating the suffix as a parenthetical in the title of the holiday (e.g., “Martin Luther King, Jr., Day”) would not be acceptable—this formulation not only looks awkward but also illogically muddies the distinction between a personal name and a holiday name.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The Chicago Manual of Style, used by many book publishers, lists the holiday in its “Holidays” section as “Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” If you can handle inconsistency in the treatment of personal names and holidays, use this formulation to refer to the holiday—even when styling King’s name with a comma before the suffix, per MLA style.

MLK Day / MLK Jr. Day

Apparently the federally run Corporation for National and Community Service, which uses “MLK Day” on its Web site about King’s birthday, didn’t get the same memo as the National Archives about using the name designated by law for federal holidays. That’s OK: the goal of this site is community outreach, not documenting archival records. In casual contexts, you might use either of these formulations (note: see the title of this blog post).

However you style the name of the holiday, take a moment to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., or find one of the many opportunities for community service taking place to commemorate him.

Works Cited

“Federal Holidays.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 3 Jan. 2017,

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., sec 8.88, U of Chicago P, 2010,

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.”, 2017,

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 992.

“Martin Luther King Day.”, 2017,

“Martin Luther King Day.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 1104.

Published 13 January 2017

Does the MLA abbreviate United States U.S. or US?

In its publications, the MLA uses the abbreviation US. (Practices among publishers vary, however, and it is not incorrect to use U.S. Whichever abbreviation you choose, be consistent.)

The MLA prefers to spell out the name United States in the main text of a work, in both adjective and noun forms. It uses the adjective form sparingly.

Published 30 August 2016

Dictionary 101

By Angela Gibson

Most writers rely on spelling checkers. But spelling checkers don’t always tell you when you’ve used the right word in the right form. (For example, they do not distinguish between homophones, or words that sound alike but have different meanings and sometimes different spellings, like “there” and “their.”) That’s one reason why it’s important to consult a dictionary as you write.

Spelling Variants

MLA publications generally follow the spelling preferences listed in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, available online, and Merriam Webster’s Unabridged, available by subscription. This means that we follow the first-listed spelling when there are variants—that is, when a word can be spelled more than one way. For example, we use the word acknowledgment, not acknowledgement. You don’t need to follow the same procedures a publisher like the MLA does, but you will want to spell a given word consistently throughout your paper and know when different spellings signal different meanings. Although it might seem confusing that there isn’t always a right and a wrong spelling choice, making an informed decision is simple: familiarize yourself with the kinds of words you should routinely look up, and know where to turn for guidance.

Below, we provide examples for using the online Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in your writing.

Two Words or One?

Spelling checkers won’t help you when it comes to compound words, or words formed by more than one word or part of a word—an especially thorny issue for writers. Compound words might be “open” (that is, treated as more than one word: out loud), “closed” (treated as one word: outpost), or hyphenated (out-box). Dictionaries usually list the most commonly used compound words.

Sometimes the same word will have a different meaning depending on whether it is one word or two. For example, time line means “a table listing important events for successive years within a particular historical period” and timeline (one word) means “a schedule of events and procedures.” So your history book might include a “time line” of events that took place during World War II, but when you visit a college admissions office, you might be given a “timeline” of activities for the day. Similarly, a fire wall is a wall designed to stop a fire from spreading, and a firewall is what keeps your computer from getting hacked.

Moreover, sometimes the part of speech can differ depending on whether a word is closed up or not: under way is an adverb (“The test is now under way”), but underway is an adjective (“She had to interrupt the underway test”).

Language, of course, is always changing. Until recently, Merriam-Webster’s showed “user name” (two words), which now appears as a single word: “username.” Frustrated yet? Don’t be. Although publishers like the MLA have to decide whether they too will make such changes, you’ll just need to follow the dictionary.

There are three main ways to find information about compound words in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate:
  1. Look up the main word and see if the term or phrase is presented as a subentry.

    Someone who makes policy is a policy maker.

    Why? There is no entry for policymaker in the dictionary, and the entry for policy does not include policymaker as a subentry.

    A man who cares for horses at a stable is a stableman.

    Why? You’ll find it as a subentry under stable.
  3. Look up the entire term or phrase, since it may be an entry unto itself.

    Children hold on to their stuffed animals.

    Why? Under the entry for hold on, you’ll find the example hold on to.

    You eat almonds to stave off hunger.

    Why? You look up stave, finding that it means “drive or thrust away.” Seeing no reference to stave off, you could mistakenly conclude that stave is the right choice. But, knowing you’ve seen stave used with off, you think to look up stave off as an entry—and find that it’s the correct term.
  5. Look up each word separately if the previous two methods yield no results.


The dictionary is one place you can look to see if a word should be capitalized. For example, did you know that Dumpster and Windbreaker are trademarks and thus capitalized? Or that Old World as a noun meaning “the European Continent” is capitalized? Every copyeditor worth his or her salt does, but most spelling checkers are blissfully ignorant of such conventions and legal niceties.

Names of Persons

If an author’s name varies in the works you consult, the MLA Handbook advises you to use the variant preferred by the dictionary of your choice. This simple guideline is sufficient for student writers.

That said, an author’s name can differ for various reasons, and scholars and publishers have a host of considerations when deciding on the spelling of a name. For example, names from languages that do not use the Latin alphabet can be romanized according to different systems. So you might see Dostoyevsky or Dostoevsky (the MLA has chosen one system for transliterating Russian). Or there might be different acceptable ways to spell a name—for example, Virgil or Vergil. (Astute readers may have noticed that the MLA now recommends “Virgil” as the most common spelling, following Merriam-Webster’s, the popular Loeb series, and the Oxford Classical Dictionary—though the spelling “Vergil” still has many adherents among scholars.) Sometimes the preferred spelling of an author’s name might be all but lost to history. For example, the writer W. E. B. Du Bois is said to have signed his name both “Du Bois” and “DuBois.” Many editions of his works, as well as the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Library of Congress, Hutchins Center at Harvard University, and editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate before the current eleventh edition, show “Du Bois” as the preferred variant.

There is often room for doubt with names—so, when you’re uncertain, follow the dictionary.


The dictionary can also offer useful guidance on which preposition to use with a word—for example, the different meanings of “consist of” and “consist in” and the fact that it is idiomatic to write “prejudiced against” (not “toward”) and “equivalent to” (not “with”).

This guidance sometimes appears in the definition, but sometimes it can only be inferred from the usage examples. For instance, are currants embedded “in” a scone or “within” it? The dictionary shows examples of “in,” a more concise word and a foolproof choice for writers.

Foreign Terms

To italicize, or not to italicize? MLA style recommends that writers using terms from a language other than English in their prose italicize them:

In Hamlet, “The Mousetrap” is a mise en abyme, or play within a play.

Since the term mise en abyme is listed as a “foreign term” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, you’d italicize it.

But “mise-en-scène,” in contrast, is not considered a foreign term, so the following treatment is justified:

The mise-en-scène of Oz in Victor Fleming’s 1939 film is established primarily by the shift from black-and-white to color film.

Here are some other words from languages other than English that have been “naturalized” into English:

  • hacienda
  • pro bono
  • raison d’être
  • zeitgeist
These words are used often enough to have become familiar to English readers and speakers and don’t need to be italicized.

Comparative Form of Adjectives

You probably would never write, “My dog is specialer to me than my pet goldfish,” but sometimes choosing the right comparative form of an adjective isn’t so cut-and-dried (or is it “cut-and-dry”?). Various usage guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style, offer advice based on syllables (one: usually add -er; two: coin toss; three: precede with “more”), but the variations are plentiful. The dictionary will tell you when forming the comparative entails altered spelling (e.g., “red” becomes “redder”), when the form is nonstandard (e.g., “bad” becomes “worse”), or when more than one choice is possible. So if you’re wondering which comparative form of the adjective to use, try the dictionary.


We live in an age of ubiquitous e-. Merriam-Webster’s lists e- (which stands for “electronic”) as a “combining form.” This means e- functions not on its own but only as part of another word. The dictionary notes, moreover, that use of e- as a combining form derives from the word “e-mail.” Some other e- words are listed, including “e-book” and “e-commerce.” Admittedly, “electronic” sounds a bit antiquated, yet e- conveys the same sense. If you coin e- compounds, keep them to a minimum—and use the hyphen.

Published 29 February 2016

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