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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

Celebrate the New Year in (MLA) Style

By Jennifer Rappaport

Should you write, “Happy New Year,” “Happy new year,” or “Happy New Year’s”?

It depends on how much happiness you want to impart. If you want to wish someone happiness for all of 2017, write, “Happy New Year,” following the entry for “New Year” in Webster’s. But if you’re feeling especially parsimonious about the year ahead and want to wish someone happiness for only the first day of it, you would write, “Happy New Year’s Day,” or “Happy New Year’s” for short, since the name of the holiday in Webster’s is “New Year’s Day.”

The entry in Webster’s does not give us license to abandon commonsense rules about capitalization. When using new year generically and preceding it with an article, lowercase the term: It’s a new year. The audit will begin in the new year.

In future posts, we will tackle the styling of other holidays.

In the meantime, Happy New Year!

Works Cited

“New Year.”,

“New Year’s Day.”,’s%20day.

Published 10 January 2017

When Not to Include

By Michael Kandel

Many of the MLA’s authorities on English usage frown on the use of include to mean are (e.g., Bernstein 28; Follett 177). Roy H. Copperud’s explanation for the frown has a peevish snap: “That which includes is not all-inclusive, careless use to the contrary” (198). Bryan A. Garner notes that include “is now coming to be widely misused for consists of” (454). The principle is simple: If you are presenting a list and it is complete—that is, exhaustive—do not use language that suggests otherwise. For example, if you eat dinner at a restaurant that serves only avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk, do not write

The restaurant’s dinner options included avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

Instead, to clarify that only these three items are served, write

The restaurant’s dinner options were avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

If you feel that the plain to be verb is inconsistent with your tone, you could reword:

The restaurant’s dinner options consisted of avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

Consisted of is a little stuffy but at least correct. Included avoids stuffiness but isn’t correct.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1965.

Copperud, Roy H. American Usage and Style: The Consensus. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980.

Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Hill and Wang, 1966.

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. 3rd edition, Oxford UP, 2009.

Published 6 January 2017


By Michael Kandel
Keep an eye out for overhedging. Some writers are timid—or pretend to be—about making a statement, so they hedge: “I believe,” “it seems to me,” “may be,” “suggests that,” et cetera. The problem is that, having hedged, they often worry that they still have been too positive, so they hedge again, often in the same sentence or phrase. The result is redundancy or, worse, a mannerism that becomes conspicuous. A few examples, with suggested editing:
“I would like to suggest” → “I suggest”
It is obvious that the author would like to.
“The implication seems to be” → “The implication is”
“Implication” has already done the work of “seems.”
“The suggestion that it may have little to do with” → “The suggestion that it has little to do with”
“Suggestion” has already done the work of “may.”
When the topic is highly touchy and an author has reason to squirm, a copyeditor should refrain from making such suggestions.

Published 9 December 2016

Critique versus Criticize

By Michael Kandel
Claire Kehrwald Cook, in her Line by Line, noted that critique as a verb “has not yet won full acceptance.” That was more than thirty years ago, and nowadays a great many scholarly writers use critique as a verb routinely and without blinking. But Cook also observed, though in passing, that the meaning of critique, “to give a critical examination of,” differs from that of criticize or review (174). The difference is important. Merriam-Webster defines the noun critique as “a careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something (such as a piece of writing or a work of art)” but points out its overlap with criticism:
Criticism usually means “the act of criticizing” or a “remark or comment that expresses disapproval,” but it can also refer to the activity of making judgments about the qualities of books, movies, etc. (as in “literary criticism”). Critique is a somewhat formal word that typically refers to a careful judgment in which someone gives an opinion about something.
The overlap notwithstanding, here is a reasonable example of why maintaining a distinction matters: On the one hand, “The ballet instructor critiqued the dancer’s pirouette” could mean that the ballet dancer performed an excellent pirouette but that the teacher gave the dancer pointers to make it dazzling. On the other hand, “The reviewer criticized the dancer’s pirouette” means that the reviewer regarded the dancer’s performance unfavorably. The formal prose required in scholarly writing can make writers hesitant to use simple, down-to-earth words, lest their authority appear questionable. But the preference for critique in academic writing often erases the valuable difference between the two words.

Works Cited

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

“Critique.”, /critique.

Published 17 October 2016

Liberate Those Verbs!

By Barney Latimer
Like pink slime mixed in with real beef to plump up a hamburger, some phrases in English lengthen a sentence while adding nothing to its meaning and diluting its rhetorical force. Two common culprits are in the process of and serves to. Both phrases precede verbs that usually do better on their own. Take the following example:
She is in the process of writing a book that serves to illuminate the role of poetry in Queen Elizabeth’s court.
When the filler phrases are omitted, the sentence conveys its meaning more swiftly:
She is writing a book that illuminates the role of poetry in Queen Elizabeth’s court.
Sometimes, too, a needlessly long verbal phrase can be replaced by a single verb:
The newsletter will put its emphasis on the success of the school’s writing program.
In this sentence, put its emphasis on can be replaced by a single verb:
The newsletter will emphasize the success of the school’s writing program.
Don’t fear simple wording. Sometimes writers reach for filler phrases because longer, more complex sentences seem more sophisticated. But there is nothing more sophisticated than being understood. One way to achieve this is to look for opportunities to liberate verbs from sluggish phrases.

Published 15 October 2016

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

Many or Multiple?

By Michael Kandel

Multiple is often not a good synonym for many, meaning “a large number,” because multiple has a narrower sense: that many elements or parts belong to or are involved in one thing or one event. The definitions of multiple in the online Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster UnabridgedThe American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition; and the Oxford English Dictionary all convey the idea of connectedness.

A few examples:

A woman who gave birth to five daughters over eight years has many children.

A woman who delivered five daughters in four minutes by caesarean section had a multiple birth.


A man who broke a leg, wrist, and finger in three separate accidents suffered many broken bones.

A man who broke a leg in three places in a single accident suffered a multiple fracture.


A car that was bought and sold six times has had many owners.

When six people together own one car, their ownership is multiple.


If you are writing multiple only because many seems unsophisticated, consider Bryan Garner’s second essential rule of officialese: “[I]f a longer word (e.g., utilize) and a shorter word (e.g., use) are both available, choose the longer”—lest that admonishing finger point to you.

Work Cited

Garner, Bryan A. “Officialese.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2009, p. 587.


“Why Should We Sweat This Small Stuff?”

By Eric Wirth

The notes posted here don’t concern small points. They concern one large point: seeing the English language as a single fabric whose threads are inseparable from one another. And so these notes don’t present writing as a matter of obeying one rule after another. Rather, writing consists of a single action: thinking about how aspects of prose fit together to form a working system.

For instance, the use of the word factoid may at first seem an isolated question of little consequence. But it actually involves giving thought to the whole fabric of language.

As coined, factoid meant an item of information that is not (or not necessarily) true but seems true. Later the word came also to mean an item of information that is true but trivial. The two senses are largely opposites. In the first, the item’s falsity is essential (or, at least, its truth is not assumed). The second assumes that the item is true.

So how does a reflective writer use the word? The answer lies in giving a moment’s thought to how the suffix -oid runs like a thread through the language and touches many words. Such a consideration finds that -oid generally means “resembling.” A humanoid being is not a human being: it’s another kind of being and merely seems human. An android is not a man (andro-, in Greek) but is manlike. An asteroid is not a star (astēr, in Greek), but it resembles one. A cuboid shape is “approximately cubical” (“1Cuboid,” def. 1).

There’s a profound difference between a human being and a being that, though humanlike, is not human. English can convey that difference efficiently with a suffix, but the suffix holds its power only if used consistently.

Writers who use factoid in a sense contrary to this thread of meaning—to mean a kind of fact—don’t violate a law of nature. Nor do they violate a grammarian’s rule, because there are no rules: there are only the interrelations of a system. But such writers neglect to give thought to those interrelations.

Work Cited

1Cuboid.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.


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