Saturday, November 05, 2005

It depends what the meaning of "its" is

I try my best to pay attention to grammar and spelling, helped out by the always-handy Spellcheck (shh--don't tell anyone, but I'm not the world's best speller, unaided).

But as Harriet Miers before me discovered, no doubt to her chagrin, Spellcheck has its limits. And one of them is the proper use of the word "its." "Its," that is, vs. "it's."

Have you ever noticed how often those two words are confused? Even though I try to pay close attention, I'm always catching myself messing up, and my bet is that, despite my best efforts, some of them have slipped by here. I see it all the time in the work of others, too (and no, I'm not going to do an exhaustive search and link to examples; you'll just have to take my word for it. Or not.)

The error almost always goes in one direction only: the use of the apostrophe, as in "it's," for the possessive form of the word, when it should only be used for the contraction "it is." Example (the one that sparked this rumination): originally, instead of "...see this from Reuters, not known for its right-wing bias" I had written "...see this from Reuters, not known for it's right-wing bias."

Why do we do this? Are we all just stupid! No, no, a thousand times no! We are actually very smart, because we are extrapolating a general rule to include this word, and that is the rule about forming possessives. Usually we do this by adding an apostrophe and an "s," as you no doubt well know. But with the words "it's" and "its," we choose to reserve the apostrophe for the contraction, and that leaves the possessive hanging out there, alone and forlorn and apostropheless.

In this, however, we're following another rule (are you still with me? or have I already bored you to tears?), that of the possessive personal pronoun: hers, his, theirs, ours, yours, for example. All lack apostrophes. But they're not confusing, somehow--perhaps because, unlike "its," they clearly refer to people, and are never given an apostrophe because they never become contractions.

Now, aren't you glad I cleared that up? But I bet it won't stop me from making the same mistake again--and again and again.


At 2:24 PM, November 05, 2005, Blogger Ron said...

I used to work with someone from the Netherlands whose name was Joop. Spellcheck did not like this word, and suggested "Poop" instead. So just out of snarkiness we used to call him "Poop"!

Perhaps English should solve this problem of contractions; why not just say "shouldnt" for "should not" leaving the apostrophe in the dust. Wouldnt, couldnt, shouldnt, isnt, hasnt, wont; (ah! a possible confused term!) let's release a Service Pack for English!

At 2:39 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous xrivhjnj said...

"Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, 'Good food at it's best,' you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave."
"Eats, Shoots & Leaves," by Lynne Truss, pp. 43-44.

Be careful. You've been warned.

At 2:42 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous erasmus said...

Mixing up your name and your word identification is the greatest...

At 3:02 PM, November 05, 2005, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one who obsesses over these things.

Then again (thanks to Google), I have a few pet peeves of my own.

At 3:02 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous mizpants said...

Right on, xrivhjnj, and thanks, Neoneo, for making this distinction. I'm an obsessive language pedant, and I'm driven nuts by the misuse of "it's." Not that I don't make plenty of mistakes myself, especially spelling errors. But I don't make the "it's" mistake. If ever I do, it'll be time to take me out and shoot me.

At 3:05 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous mizpants said...

Speaking of peeves, Shoshanna, how about "reigning in," as in "reigning in the insurgents." That one drives me wild.

At 5:04 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did a ten year study of the "possessive" phenomena and discovered that the most grievous solecism is not" its," but the failure to use the possessive with a gerund, i.e., she was tired of me slugging her. (vice "my slugging") Such are the foibles of we English speakers. Mark

At 5:31 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous Zhombre said...

Harriet Miers!? She is soooooo pre-Alioto.

At 5:31 PM, November 05, 2005, Blogger David Thomson said...

One must be a fairly good speller---or a so-called spell checker is almost a complete waste of time. It will not save the marginal illiterate from making foolish mistakes. The irony is that in some ways my own spelling and typing skills are deteriorating. I get a little lazy because I know that I will use the “spell checker” before posing any comments. Is this something to worry about? Nope, I rarely opt for the conventional pen on paper.

At 5:53 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous crosstalk said...

If I recollect aright from my college linguistics classes, adding an apostrophe to the possessive "its" to produce "it's" is called "regularizing the paradigm", and is a form of "hypercorrection". (The paradigm is the apostrophe-'s' for a possessive, the personal pronouns being therefore irregular.)

Pretty highfalutin language for a common (although understandable) error, no?

At 8:38 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous BritAm said...

For me, "it's" vs "its" doesn't jar as much as the common misuse of "your". I was drilled in my English grammar school (the equivalent of US high school for gifted children) that "your" is strictly the possessive participle or pronoun; the abreviation for "you are" is "you're".

At 8:44 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad thing is, many of the people teaching our kids in school don't even know the correct usage. My 10 year old daughter's teacher didn't catch a misuse of it's in a paper she wrote! DD found this to be rather amusing, as when she brought her paper home to make the corrections her teacher suggested, she found her own mistake!

At 9:20 PM, November 05, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I'm with BritAm on this, more troubled by your/you're than its/it's.

Despite knowing that language is always undergoing change, "correct" English is a class marker, and conflicting rules of grammar are often decided rather arbitrarily, I am still foursquare behind resisting any abandonment of the rules. This is solely because I want to. I like it. You'll have to pry my Oxford comma from my cold, dead, fingers.

I recommend The Transitive Vampire, a humorous but appropriately pedantic grammar book.

At 10:36 PM, November 05, 2005, Blogger PatCA said...

I edit academic papers, and my pet peeve is using an apostrophe for a simple plural!!

As in "The Garcia's all helped me so much in the academic career." Aaaack!

And don't get me started on hyphens and semicolons.

At 10:59 PM, November 05, 2005, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

mizpants, indeed! All we can or should hope to achieve is "reining in" those insurgents, as one would control an unruly horse by means of a harness. Putting them under imperial rule would be unachievable, and quite contrary to American principles!

anon, quite right - the gerund and the participle LOOK the same, but they're completely different entities.

At 11:04 PM, November 05, 2005, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

On the subject of spellcheckers, I've seen some nonnative English speakers (especially beginning Iraqi bloggers) rely on them, and they often do more harm than good. A paragraph riddled with perfectly understandable spelling errors is at least comprehensible; relying on the spellchecker's first suggestion can turn perfectly good writing into complete, unintelligible gibberish.

At 11:24 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous erasmus said...


The NYT's use of ' for the plural, as in:

"Two Israeli F-16's..." instead of two F-16s.

Abysmal, amoral, rotten disgusting, revolting and ungrammatical.

ALSO: many of their writers don't know the difference between "farther" and "further."

At 11:36 PM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous benning said...

Neo-neo, having just finished proofing my novel manuscript, I was frustrated beyond belief to find - still! - a few instances of "it's" when I should have written "its". In each case they were used in the possessive. That manuscript went through three editors, too, AND a final editor before the proof came back to me.

We all do it, as a matter of habit. Ain't no shame, Neo-neo. Heheheee!

At 3:46 AM, November 06, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

I know the rule, but consider it a bit of an anachronism. Sometimes I follow it, dependent upon with whom I'm corresponding. People who use "your" for "you're" also irk me, though, as do those who utilize "women" when they mean "woman"...

At 7:53 AM, November 06, 2005, Blogger Zendo Deb said...

"release a Service Pack for English!"

Then I hope they fix the things that really don't make sense... Model and little - is it "el" or "le"? Seems like one or the other should work in all cases. I have to type it out to see it, and usually get it wrong the 1st time around.

School. Schedule. Let's drop this darn German spelling. (We did win both wars!)

Is it "I before E" or not. Neighbor needs some serious help.

Should I go on?

At 8:18 AM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Nikolaides said...

Isn't anybody going to talk about "lie" and "lay"???? Sometimes I think there are only a handful of people left on Earth who understand the difference.

At 8:19 AM, November 06, 2005, Blogger Dad said...

It's is not, it isn't ain't, and it's it's, not its, if you mean it is. If you don't, it's its.
Then too, it's hers. It isn't her's. It isn't our's either. It's ours, and likewise yours and theirs.

At 8:20 AM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Nikolaides said...

Agh! I made a grammar error in my own post on grammar errors!! It's too early in the morning for this. I'm going away to hide now . . .

At 9:10 AM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least you remember this stuff! I spent most of my English classes trying to forget where I was...


At 9:44 AM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Lugnut said...

All the listed examples bother me too, but the growing use of chat speak enrages me.

"u" for "you"
"ur" or "your" AND "you're"

How much lazier will English speakers get?

At 10:12 AM, November 06, 2005, Blogger roman said...

Often a possesive personal pronoun
refers back to the subject already mentioned in the same sentence.
Example "...see this from Reuters, not known for its right-wing bias".

Since English was not my primary language until my teens,I wonder if it is really necessary in many cases.
Skip the word altogether as in "...see this from Reuters, not known for right-wing bias".
Am I breaking some rule of grammer here?

At 11:13 AM, November 06, 2005, Blogger PatCA said...

Roman, both examples are correct.

But it's grammar, not grammer!

Sorry, my training will out.

At 1:34 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PatC: As in "The Garcia's all helped me so much in the academic career." Aaaack!

I do that "Garcia's" thing all the time too, and I don't even know anyone named Garcia. My incorrect usage is so ingrained that I write around it, as in: "The Garcia's knowledge helped me..."

My real pet peeve though, is people using loose for lose.

At 1:40 PM, November 06, 2005, Blogger THIRDWAVEDAVE said...

I have seen this error thousands of times, but the worst was during a White Sox game during the WS. The camera did a close up of a sign that read: "White Sox--its' our turn now."

My rule:


At 2:37 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous BritAm said...

Roman: Skip the word altogether as in "...see this from Reuters, not known for right-wing bias".
Am I breaking some rule of grammer here?

Far from breaking a rule of grammar, you are applying Strunk & White's 13th rule: "Omit needless words".

At 2:43 PM, November 06, 2005, Blogger antimedia said...

It's is its own worst enemy then.

At 3:16 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have the its/it's problem when typing. I used to paste an "its/it's" card on the bazel of my monitor to try to keep myself in line.

My pet peeve, however, is the misuse of "I" instead of "me" in a compound object: "...give Susan and I some credit". Ouch. (That is, using the subject case of the pronoun when you should be using the object case).

People CONSTANTLY make this mistake, and don't realize it's a mistake: Every editor I've worked with gets this wrong; stone-cold lock that any hollywood script will get it wrong; public speakers, politicians, everyone screws it up.

At 3:28 PM, November 06, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

Now I lie my down to sleep.

At 8:03 PM, November 06, 2005, Blogger PatCA said...

I used to work in the courthouse. A sign reading "Attorney's, please sign in here" drove me insane.

Anon, the Garcias are aware of your errors and are not happy.

At 10:41 PM, November 06, 2005, Blogger roman said...

Argh, grammar it is. Thanks.
Got to start using spellcheck.. no excuses.

At 11:49 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous strcpy said...

Don't worry, it could be worse.

I'm dyslexic - I know the issues but simply can't get them correct even if I am capable of noticing them. I never can remember which goes which way.

It can be embarrasing. First is in e-mail (and to a lesser extent blog/message board posts). Even with a spell checker for most things it takes at least a day for any written material by me to be proofread - I tend to read what I know it was supposed to say instead of what it does. Waiting a long period of time has me forgetting what I mean. Even then I only read the words in an article I recognise and fill in the rest by context. Since this is too time consuming for quick text messages (e-mail at least has built in spell-checkers) it gets read four or five times and off it goes (this still takes a long time).

I used to write professional papers in my last job (research in computer science at a national lab) and there are some embarassing type-o's in them. I had three or four other people proofread them but some errors still made it into the final cut - one will be archived by IEEE for many years for others to witness. At least Computer Scientist tends to be very forgiving of those types of errors.

It's also one of the reasons why something I write will be kinda roundabout - I can't get the word I need close enough for a spellchecker or dictionary so I reword the whole thing.

You don't want to see any lengthy hand written items - it looks like a fourth grader wrote the stuff.

So, even though I know it can be irritating you have no idea why the person on the other side wrote that. While, technically, I could go through the whole process it would take approxamtly 4 to 5 hours of work for this single post which may, or may not, contain many errors (sometimes my errors and up going the correct way). That counts for grammar, spelling, and even word misues (for instance I very well know the difference between "proscribe" and "prescribe" but have trouble getting the correct one in writing). Best to try and ignore them and base your attitude on thier ideas.

At 1:12 PM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous stoma said...


At 9:03 AM, November 08, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Neo, I don't believe I've noticed you using it's and its incorrectly.

Although I'm not reading and checking grammer at the same time either, but I usually notice those things in posts ever since I learned the difference.

Besides, not a lot of people use it.

As for spelling, English got a lot easier for me to spell when I phonetically memorized each word and how it was pronounced. That way, I could just spell a word by hearing how it is said. Although those French words are impossible to spell thus.

Another weird thing was memory recognition. Somewhere in my subconscious, I have a picture of what each word is supposed to look like, and when I spell something incorrectly it then doesn't jibe. And I use that to create self-corrections.

It's sort of like the equivalent to muscle memory. It's not really under your control.

Although, I do believe that the more its you use and the more it ises you use, the easier it becomes to memorize. As it goes deeper and deeper in the mental form of muscle memory.

Many people proscribe to the so called "casual writer's club" in which they pay no attention to punctuation, capitalization, syntax, spelling, or anywhichway thing that ever comes up while they are writing on the internet.

That is a very poor habit, and I always feel a sort of contempt for those who promote bad habits over good ones as a matter of principle.

Decadence has many forms and figures. Like figure ice skating!

I don't even have a spellchecker and is not that easy to use. So it isn't like I can scan this post or whatever automatically. I'd have to preview it and proof read it and all that non-sense. Which is why I like to be able to edit after one has posted.

To strcpy

Even with a spell checker for most things it takes at least a day for any written material by me to be proofread - I tend to read what I know it was supposed to say instead of what it does.
I took have noticed this as I am proof-reading things. I realized as time went on, and I did more reading and such, it became easier to parse my own words differently. As in, I could now read my own sentences, and figure out in my head how I would want it to sound, instead of reading my own sentences and thinking they were how I remembered I had written them.

A rather subtle difference.

Although it helps that I'm looking for better parsings and a better flow to the sentence, rather than checking for technical mistakes.


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