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October 12th, 2005

Veterans Day or Veterans' Day? / a memory aid for affect and effect

by Barbara Wallraff

Geoffrey Thorpe, of Dedham, Maine, writes: “As Veterans’ Day approaches, I see it written ‘Veteran’s Day’ everywhere. Is Nov. 11 the day of a veteran or of veterans in general?”

Dear Geoffrey: Veterans Day is a federal holiday, so the grammatically correct way to write its name doesn’t really matter. The U.S. government calls it “Veterans Day,” with no apostrophe in sight. Thus the apostrophe-free version is standard.

If I were president, however, I would issue an executive order to change the name to the form you prefer: “Veterans’ Day.” (Who wants to join my “language is important” political party, and what shall we call it? I’ll reward the reader who sends me the most inspired party-name suggestion -- assuming there are any that strike me as inspired -- with an autographed copy of my latest book, “Your Own Words.” Names that make for good acronyms will receive special consideration.)

Furthermore, as president, I’d work to restore the apostrophes in phrases like “citizens band radio” and “a teachers college.” The Associated Press Stylebook gives both of these as examples of correct usage, reasoning that the word ending in “s” is being primarily in a descriptive sense.”

Forgive me, AP, but I disagree. The possessive case in English -- words ending in an apostrophe plus “s” or “s” plus an apostrophe -- isn’t used only when someone or something is literally in possession of something else. For the possessive case to be correct, the citizens don’t have to own the radio band, or the teachers own the college. (If you’re inclined to argue with me, first ask yourself what’s going on in a phrase like “a day’s work” or “a week’s pay.”)

In its heart of hearts, the AP seems to know this: It admits that a term including “a plural word that does not end in ‘s’” needs an apostrophe plus “s” -- “a children’s hospital,” for instance. That’s a hospital for children, just as the college is for teachers and the band of radio is for citizens to use. If the AP’s logic about the use of the plural word in a “descriptive sense” held up, we’d say “a children hospital.”

I suppose that’s enough about phrases like Veterans Day -- except to add that this year Veterans Day, however you punctuate it, is especially meaningful to many of us. Let’s all thank the veterans we know for their selfless hard work in the service of keeping us safe and free.

If you have trouble remembering whether “affect” is (usually) a verb and “effect” a noun or whether it’s the other way around, let’s solve your problem today, once and for all. A few weeks ago I explained the difference -- it’s “Hurricane Katrina affected (verb) the Gulf Coast severely” and “The storm had a devastating effect (noun).” But I also confessed that I didn’t know any memory aids and asked for readers’ help. Many people, including teachers, shared the aids they use.

The one that’s probably easiest to remember was explained this way by Annilee Foster, of Northville, Mich.: “The word with an ‘E’ is the one that follows ‘thE’ -- ‘effect.’ Also, when you can substitute ‘rEsult,’ use ‘effect.’ But when you can substitute ‘chAnge,’ use ‘affect.’”

Good idea, Annilee. Thanks to you and others for your suggestions.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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