Rantings of a sub-editor

March 12, 2011

The mother of apostrophe dilemmas

Filed under: Mother's Day,punctuation — substuff @ 4:58 pm

Around this time every year, someone always raises the question of Mother’s Day. Of three things you can be sure:

  1. It won’t be my brother
  2. Much tutting and sighing will be done over apostrophes, singular mothers, plural mothers and generic mothers 
  3. By this time next year, we’ll all have forgotten again

This year is different. Yes! This year I will excite you with tidbits that may even be true, our memories will be stimulated and next year we shall be able to nod sagely and answer without hesitation when some other fool raises the question.

Mother’s Day was founded in America by Anna Jarvis. She started campaigning for it in 1905, following the death of her mother, and seven years later trademarked both “Mother’s Day” and the phrase “second Sunday in May”. According to this rather lovely article on Canada.com:

She was specific about the location of the apostrophe; it was to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.

Incidentally, Jarvis went on to campaign against the commercialisation of Mother’s Day. But before you consider making that argument when you forget your flowers on 3rd April (note my handy warning), beware – the alternative is to wear a carnation and write a heartfelt letter. Suddenly M&S doesn’t sound so bad, huh?

However, we Brits, because we are super, actually had our own celebration before the Americans got in on the act (the sixteenth century, according to that bastion of accuracy, Wikipedia). It was always the fourth Sunday in Lent and girls in domestic service were given the day off to visit their “mother church” (nearest chunkily sized church or cathedral, so far as I can work out).

Somewhere along the way it became a day to visit mothers, and lo a need for cake came to pass, along with a need to decorate it with 11 disciples. Now I’m not sure whether one baked it for one’s mother or with one’s mother, but either way, a simnel cake was magicked into the world. And just this once I’m going to grace you with a recipe to enjoy with your gratuitous word facts [slobber]. Don’t get used to it. However, because of the rules of Lent, until Easter the only permitted interaction with the cake was to look at it. Yum.

Mothering Sunday lost popularity in the industrial revolution, but when we met those golden and strapping Americans and Canadians during the second world war, we decided we liked it again. We kept our traditional date, though, and still celebrate on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which this year puts us one week ahead of the US.

The short version, though, is Mother’s day. Apostrophe ess. “Mothering Sunday” now, unfortunately, just sounds too quaint.

I want cake.



  1. This issue has never occurred to me before (so I’m either a lazy son or a lazy grammarian) but now my head is spinning with it.

    I’m not hugely inclined to respect the trademark, and I think there could be more to this than ‘general celebration of mothering’ vs ‘celebration of each person’s mother’.

    What if you’ve got two mothers? Say you’re the child of a lesbian couple, or an adopted child who later in life formed a relationship with your biological mum? Or you have a stepmother? Mothers’ Day would make more sense.

    But then, if the day were known as Mothers’ Day, that could cause trouble. Because if you get your mum a card, it’s one card for one mother (presumably one each if you have two). So it would be appropriate for that to be a Mother’s Day card. I think.

    Is the day named from the point of view of the mother or from the child?

    Oh, I don’t know. But I agree on the wanting cake bit.

    (I wonder how Nicole Bradford handled Father’s/s’ Day?)

    Comment by stroppyeditor — March 12, 2011 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

    • Goodness. Talk about complicating the matter!

      I’m inclined to stick with Mother’s Day in copy, for the sake of harmony and consistency. And in a card to my mother (of whom there is only one), the same. However, before doing my research, I would have said Mothers’ Day. But you have to admit, it’s kinda ugly.

      I should have mentioned in the post that The Times and the Guardian both list Mother’s Day in their style guides.

      Comment by substuff — March 12, 2011 @ 6:42 pm | Reply

      • Yeah, Mother’s Day ain’t pretty. Guess that’s the clincher!

        Comment by stroppyeditor — March 12, 2011 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

  2. I have to confess that I had never linked Simnel Cake with Mother’s Day – I thought is was purely to do with Easter. Upon reflection though, I think it is just a good excuse to eat cake, which seems to be a rather popular notion.

    Comment by Stefmez — March 13, 2011 @ 9:29 pm | Reply

  3. No idea where I got this from but I’ve always thought that Mothering Sunday was a Christian event that recognised the conception of Christ, being as how it falls roughly nine months before Christmas.

    Comment by Carey — April 27, 2011 @ 9:59 am | Reply

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