Apostrophes for mothers’ day

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for possessive apostrophes – much abused and misunderstood as they are.

And it’s this time of the year that I’m most aware of the little mark … because the day for mothers is upon us.

Every year I’m bothered by the various ways that marketers write about the day. As you choose your card, do you wish your mother: Happy Mothers Day, Happy Mother’s Day, or Happy Mothers’ Day?

In my household, I insist on Happy Mothers’ Day, even though the widespread consensus falls on the side of Mother’s Day.

For me, the day isn’t just for one mother. I see it as a day for mothers … all mothers. You might celebrate your own mother next Sunday, but you’ll be conscious that mothers all around you are also being celebrated. It’s a day of collective consumption and celebration – when all mothers expect (want) to be pampered.

That’s why I see it as Mothers’ Day … with the apostrophe showing the plural possessive.

Part of my rationale is to experiment with replacing ‘mother’ with other terms, to see whether they sound sensible. For example, I think we’d have a Children’s Day, but not a Child’s Day; and we’d have a People’s Day, not a Person’s Day. In Brisbane, we’re quite comfortable with the idea of a People’s Day – we have one at our Exhibition every year.

The day to celebrate mothers was trademarked in the USA by Anna Jarvis in 1912. In 1914, it was made an official holiday in the USA. Apparently Anna Jarvis was specific about the singular possessive (Mother’s Day), because it was an occasion for individual families. Anna later became dismayed by the commercialism of the day.

Mothering Sunday in the UK has a separate heritage. It’s on the fourth Sunday in Lent, and can be traced back at least to Roman times. It was originally a religious festival, where people visited their mother church – usually with their own mothers and other family members.

So where does that leave us in Australia? And where does it leave the little apostrophe? I’ll continue to write Mothers’ Day, because I see the second Sunday in May as a day to celebrate all mothers. I think that my preference could partly be linked to the term ‘mother’, which I see as a label rather than a name. I’m ‘mum’ to my kids, not ‘mother’! So while I see Mothers’ Day as plural possessive, I think I’d be quite comfortable about Mum’s Day – a day for an individual mum. And I guess that demonstrates how easy it is to be inconsistent with punctuation.

Mums, enjoy your burned toast, flowers, and smelly candles! Better still, enjoy your gifts from The Letter Lounge – where you’ll find something word-themed and beautiful.