Its, it’s: It’s a problem

Some pet linguistic peeves are indulged, I find, not for reasons of clarity or grammatical soundness, but out of petty pedantry, habitual curmudgeonliness, or some kind of character disorder. On the other hand, I’ve been accused – affectionately, I hope – of excessive tolerance in such matters. But I have peeves of my own, one of which is the confusion over its and it’s.

Lynne Truss considers this “the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation”. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves she writes that it “sets off a simple Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler”, and goes on to fantasise – satirically, one hopes – about lightning strikes and unmarked graves.

My instincts are less violently judgemental. I don’t get wound up over its/it’s confusion – but I often wince at it, particularly when it appears in edited prose. So, I imagine, does Roger Ebert:

To summarise the difference: it’s is always a contraction of it is or it has. Usually the former. Keep this front and centre, and you’ll greatly reduce your chances of ever getting it wrong. Its is the possessive form of it – the third person neuter possessive pronoun. So you might write of a solitary ant: “It’s lost its way.”

It’s not just students, bloggers and learners who mix up its and it’s, but also people for whom words are central to their trade – journalists, broadcasters, reviewers, professors of law, and so on. I’ve seen lexicographers and linguists slip up.

Evidently it’s a major source of confusion – a mistake so common as to be virtually normalised. But I’m an editor with a hero-of-Haarlem complex, so I feel duty bound to do what I can. Lawrence Lessig almost put it well:

A look at the causes might shed some light. There are, I suspect, three main reasons for the confusion. One is that its is an exception to a well-known rule: Add apostrophe-s for possession. Hence the ill-advised leap from, say, the dog’s tail to *it’s tail. Another reason is contagion: the mistaken forms are very prevalent, and their every appearance reinforces the wrongness. The third main reason is that many people don’t care.

Apparently, iPhones auto-correct its to it’s, which might explain Mr Lessig’s lapse. A friend on Twitter thinks this faulty auto-correct feature is responsible for a fair proportion of the confusion on Twitter. She’s probably right. It’s also worth noting that its and it’s have quite a tangled history.

Maybe you’d consider its/it’s confusion a negligible matter – the pet rock of pet peeves. It rarely leads to misinterpretation, and it sure doesn’t amount to much on a cosmic scale. But careful readers will notice the mistake and consider it a sign of inattention, sloppiness, ignorance, or even illiteracy – especially if it’s repeated. So if you value good communication, it’s a distinction you ought to make, and make consistently.

That its/it’s mistakes occur in the prose of reputable publications and careful writers shows how easily confusion creeps in. But with vigilance and application we can defend ourselves from it. If you’re prone to this mix-up, even occasionally, you might want to condition yourself to observe the distinction. Here’s how. For as long as I can remember, I’ve habitually read erroneous it’s as it is. So, for example, in The Guardian last week I saw the following:

I automatically read this as “in all it is bewildering glory”, with a slight slow emphasis on “it is”. The same goes for these errors on the HSE and Galway City Council websites:

Semantically, I inferred what was meant, but in parallel I processed the absurdities (“it is companion book”; “it is environs”). Doing this for years has given me a kind of immunity, I think, by steadily and deeply embedding the rule in my nervous system. I’m very strongly sensitised to it. Accepting it’s as its would undermine this conditioning, so I don’t.

* * *

Update: I’ll use this space to add occasional examples I consider striking. For example, I didn’t expect to see the error slip past the editors at The Economist – but it did:

The mistake has since been fixed. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Plain English Campaign has fallen prey to this basic error:

Here’s The Boston Globe, not only getting it wrong, but misquoting the New York Times Magazine in the process:

The NYT itself has its moments of weakness:

The Guardian again:

guardian roomba its it's

In a post titled “Not OK”, here’s Language Log (third line from the bottom; subsequently fixed):

Mother Jones magazine on Tumblr:

John Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air:

Anthony de Mello’s One Minute Nonsense gets it right and wrong in the same sentence:

The BBC:

The Channel 4 documentary Dispatches: After School Arms Club:

Channel 4 Dispatches documentary - After School Arms Club - its it's

A pack of Siúcra granulated sugar:

Poetry Foundation (spotted by Paraic O’Donnell); now fixed:

The BBC Entertainment News Twitter account, which acknowledged the mistake amusingly a few tweets later:

A headlining typo in Cois Coiribe, the newsletter of alumni and friends of National University of Ireland, Galway:

io9:

io9 mongolian death worm - its it's

Both correct and incorrect forms of the possessive pronoun its appear in the same clause in my Penguin Books edition of The Haunting, a short supernatural novel by Margaret Mahy (the mistake occurs twice in the book):

Nicola Barker’s Five Miles From Outer Hope:

Brian Moore’s novel The Temptation of Eileen Hughes:

Brian Moore - The Temptation of Eileen Hughes - its it's

Mythmakers & Lawbreakers, edited by Margaret Killjoy; interview with Alan Moore:

Mythmakers & Lawbreakers - Alan Moore interview - its it's

An old New Yorker cartoon:

New Yorker cartoon its it's

Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing:

casey miller and kate swift - handbook of non-sexist writing - its it's

Raymond Chander’s Philip Marlowe, edited by Byron Preiss, in the story ‘Star Bright’ by John Lutz:

its it's - 'Star Bright' by John Lutz, in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe ed. B. Preiss

Daniel D. O’Keeffe’s First Book of Irish Ballads:

Daniel O'Keeffe First Book of Irish ballads its it's

Seth’s graphic novel It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken:

seth - it's a good life, if you don't weaken - its it's

Val Mulkerns’ story ‘Humanae Vitae’ in Body and Soul, an anthology of Irish short stories edited by David Marcus:

Val Mulkerns - Humanae Vitae - in Body and Soul ed. David Marcus - its it's

Michael Connelly’s The Concrete Blonde:

michael connelly - the concrete blonde - its it's

Anaïs Nin, A Woman Speaks, edited by Evelyn Hinz:

Anais Nin - A Woman Speaks - its it's

A tweet from the Irish Independent:

Irish independent twitter its it's confusion

A headline in the Galway Independent newspaper reverses the usual its/it’s confusion:

Galway Independent headline its it's

An errant apostrophe appears in the phrase “Many Worlds Interpretation” in John Gribbin’s book In Search of the Multiverse:

[more on apostrophes]

Note: this post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus (subscription required).
About these ads

39 Responses to Its, it’s: It’s a problem

  1. Jonathan says:

    I think what’s irritating about apostrophe misuse, especially in this context, is that the rule underlying them is so blatantly simple! I do feel a moment of frustration when I see a sign inviting me to buy ‘apple’s’ because ‘its the healthy option!’.

  2. Michele says:

    Ah, but what of ’tis?

  3. substuff says:

    You do know, don’t you, that all this will achieve is to make you even more angry the next time you get hit by rogue apostrophe. Or fall into a void where there should be one. Its inevitable.

    Nice post, though. I like the volcano-about-to-erupt undertones.

  4. Matt T says:

    You actually got to the “it’s” in the “Who’s On First” snippet? I got stuck at “Abbot” because I know him as Bud Abbott.

  5. Don’t hate me, Stan, but I get this one wrong all the time. It’s/its totally my Achilles’ heel. And, given that I’m 100% on top of the difference between the two, I can’t even explain why it happens!

  6. Stephanie says:

    This is definitely a pet hate of mine too! I’ve found that some people who struggle even if they know the ‘it is’ rule find this one works to stop them putting an apostrophe in the possessive: ‘his’ and ‘her’ don’t have an apostrophe, therefore ‘its’ doesn’t either.

  7. Stephen says:

    The iPhone auto-correct is a real nuisance. I hadn’t realised that, so must have sent numerous texts with misspelled its’s.

    But there’s surely something odd about the way we approach electronic communication. Most of my work emails are exchanged with publishers, professional writers, and academics, and the level of correction that goes into all our emails is minimal. We just bump off whatever we want to say and simply don’t read it through before hitting send. I frequently sign my emails, as Stepnhe, and write thnaks, though I’d never allow a typed letter to go into an envelope in that state.

    And it’s not unsual to see a their instead of there or even they’re in mails from people who most certainly do know the difference. The same must happen with its/it’s – the brain is running ahead of the fingers, and stray apostrophes get added or omitted as we’re already onto the next formulation.

  8. nclinch says:

    It’s a problem. I hate the misuse of the word “then”.
    Four is greater then two. *Wrong*

    Then how about to, too, and two.

  9. Stan says:

    Jonathan: It’s simple, yes, but maybe deceptively so. It confounds a lot of people a lot of the time.

    Michele: Deliberately avoided, for now!

    substuff: Oh, I don’t get angry about it. I value my health too much.

    Matt: Well spotted.

    MRP: I don’t hate anyone, and I especially don’t hate my fellow language bloggers. Isn’t it strange how mistakes can creep in even when we know better? I’m convinced that usage-contagion is significant here.

    Stephanie: Thanks, that’s a helpful tip. I’ve seen it on some web pages about the problem. Curiously, his was once used where its would be nowadays.

    Stephen: Since I don’t have an iPhone, I was unaware of the problem too, until I learnt of it today, on Twitter. It would explain a lot of the errors I’ve been seeing. I’ve noticed a certain laxness in semi-formal online communication too – but mostly in the inbox, not the outbox! I frequently type my name as ‘Stab’ or ‘Stabn’, through mechanical error, but I catch these before clicking Send. I hope. The pace at which people work is probably a factor, and just being online is a recipe for distraction.

    nclinch: Yes, then for than is a surprisingly common mistake. I’d put that one down to a lack of reading.

  10. Jonathon says:

    “But careful readers will notice the mistake and consider it a sign of inattention, sloppiness, ignorance, or even illiteracy – especially if it’s repeated. So if you value good communication, it’s a distinction you ought to make, and make consistently.”

    This is the crux of the argument, I think. Virtually no one will actually be confused, but they will make negative judgements nonetheless. I think I’d actually call it good meta-communication, though.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Curious that few people write its when they mean it’s, though.

  12. wisewebwoman says:

    I do that “it is” thing too, so rarely if never make the mistake myself but it stops me in my tracks when I see it written by others.
    Another hot halt of mine is “your” and “you’re” – a frequent error of the young.
    And I’ve seen “thank’s” more often than I’d rather lately. What a huge effort to hang an unnecessary apostrophe on a FB post, I say.
    Oh those stray and straggling apostrophes, though I see many bold households now flagrantly display them:

    The Murphy’s
    The Smith’s

    I’m left with bated breath as to what possession they are proudly proclaiming as theirs.

    XO
    WWW

  13. Sean Jeating says:

    [Despite the log in my eyes]:
    That (so many) native speakers would mix it’s and its, I do take notice of with interest; actually, it is surprising (for me), like is the mixing of then and than.
    On the other hand, again, I am able to make so many mistakes within one sentence … perhaps I ought just to shut up. :)

  14. “…careful readers will notice the mistake and consider it a sign of inattention, sloppiness, ignorance, or even illiteracy – especially if it’s repeated. So if you value good communication, it’s a distinction you ought to make, and make consistently.”

    Words of wisdom, but yes, I have certainly detected Stabn’s excessive tolerance in other matters. In previous postings, I have not persuaded him that the English language is under constant onslaught from those who express themselves with “inattention, sloppiness [and] ignorance.” It is up to those of us who “value good communication” to be on vigil to defend the precious heritage of the English language.

  15. I know the rule, it makes me wince to see the apostrophe where it shouldn’t be. So why do I find myself getting it wrong?

  16. Fran says:

    Don’t get me started on this one.

  17. language hat says:

    “But careful readers will notice the mistake and consider it a sign of inattention, sloppiness, ignorance, or even illiteracy – especially if it’s repeated. So if you value good communication, it’s a distinction you ought to make, and make consistently.”

    You mean “if you value your reputation among careful readers” (or, if I were feeling nasty, “among grammar peevers”). It’s obvious that “good communication” has nothing to do with it, since both are pronounced /its/ (unless you’re Victor Borge), and we communicate perfectly well via speech. I have to say I find apostrophe rage especially strange, even in the realm of peevedom; it’s a convenient little symbol, but hardly worth the angst it occasions when “misused.”

  18. Stan says:

    Jonathon: Yes, people will make those judgements, without necessarily being judgemental about it. It may be effective meta-communication, but I’m not sure about ‘good’ – it’s a bit ambiguous here.

    John: Sometimes I think there’s a tendency for people to add the apostrophe when they’re in doubt. The converse tendency might be better, on balance.

    WWW: That sounds like a plague of apostroflies. There’s a shop not far from here with a shiny sign proclaiming “Ice-cream’s”, and when I see it I do something similar to you, finishing the sentence along the lines of “…melting” or “no more than you deserve”.

    Sean: It’s a curious matter, and a common muddle. As I noted in an earlier post, the lexicographer Robert Burchfield once wrote that the prevalence of apostrophe-related mistakes and the omission of the mark in many business names suggest that “the time is close at hand when this moderately useful device should be abandoned”. I can’t see that happening any time soon, though, and until it does there’s value in getting it right.

    Jonathan: I guess you’re referring to this discussion in particular. No indeed, you didn’t persuade me to adapt what seems to me a siege mentality over something that hardly needs defending. Perhaps I am excessively tolerant, but I don’t think so. I just like to see good reasons for people’s peeves, and I prefer not to interpret lapses (or non-standard usage) as portents of doom.

    Jams: I imagine there are many people in your position: they dislike the mistake, yet they occasionally fall prey to it. A mnemonic might help, especially one that intercepts the particular situations in which you get it wrong.

    Fran: How about a tale of apostrophe horror in the classroom in time for the month’s end?

    language hat: I think good communication does have something to do with it – but only written communication, so I’m glad you called me on that. I wrote the post in editor mode, so the written aspect was implicitly intended, but I should perhaps have specified this. My attitude to apostrophe misuse is made clearer in this post. Apostrophe rage is in no one’s best interest.

  19. Paolo says:

    Non-native speakers are less likely to get it wrong, I believe. Do you think it might have anything to do with better awareness of grammar rules?
    I am Italian and in the past I was in a number of German language courses with English and Irish people; I was surprised to see that almost all of them were really struggling with grammatical categories and functions which, on the other hand, seemed to be second nature to other nationalities – they had been drilled into us as children at school.

  20. Val Erde says:

    I find that when I think too much about how I’m spelling something, that’s when I get it wrong. It’s damn annoying that I used to be so good at spelling and these days things are getting worse and worse. But yeah – the wrongly used it’s and its drive me mad, too.

    What I hate most is what I’ve nicknamed ‘Estate Agent Spelling’. As in “the garden is complimented by a greenhouse.” In my mind I see a greenhouse saying a lot of nice things about the garden…

  21. language hat says:

    I think good communication does have something to do with it – but only written communication

    I understand you’re only talking about writing (since apostrophes are irrelevant to speech); my point was that since if you read a sentence with a “misused” apostrophe out loud you can’t tell whether it’s there or not, it’s hard to see how communication is impeded except by the reflex annoyance of the apostrophe-peever, which of course is the fault of the peever’s reflexes, not of the poor little apostrophe.

    Don’t get me wrong, excrescent apostrophes bother me too, but I recognize my reaction as sheer habit, like my dislike for contrary-to-fact “may have,” and do not try to justify it by recourse to a supposed deleterious effect on communication. “It’s depths” communicates just as well as “its depths”; it’s just that it “sets off a simple Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler.”

  22. Stan says:

    Paolo: It’s not something I’ve assessed systematically, but I suspect you’re right: that it’s a bigger problem for native speakers because of how they (we) were educated. Maybe grammar wasn’t drilled into us so much, because of an assumption that we understood it intuitively. But this leaves us less able to deal with grammatical sticking points when they arise.

    Val: Peculiar prose in the property section has attracted my attention too. To your Estate Agent Spelling I would add Estate Agent Punctuation, Syntax, Hyperbole and Euphemism. Definitely worth a future blog post.

    language hat: Truss’s characterisation of the “average stickler” is misleading, and in any case difficult to gauge given her extreme intolerance (however satirical). Most people’s reactions would, I think, lie in the reasonable middle ground between the ‘kill’ response and utter equanimity.

    Reader annoyance over apostrophe misuse is obviously not the apostrophes’ fault, but whether it’s fully or mostly the reader’s fault is debatable. Errors are errors: whether they’re interpreted as signs of carelessness or something worse, a negative reaction seems justifiable. I would maintain that communication can be undermined by apostrophe misuse because it breaks the reading rhythm and sours the reading experience in a significant proportion of cases.

  23. language hat says:

    I would maintain that communication can be undermined by apostrophe misuse because it breaks the reading rhythm and sours the reading experience in a significant proportion of cases.

    Sure, but I would distinguish that from what I would consider a “real” example of impeded communication like the aforementioned change (which has, unfortunately for me, occurred within my lifetime) from “might have” to “may have” for contrary-to-fact clauses. To me, “He may have caught the ball” means unambiguously that the speaker is not sure whether he caught it or not. When I hear it used, as it is now almost universally, in a contrary-to-fact clause like “He may have caught the ball if he had moved faster,” it confuses me.

  24. Val Erde says:

    Stan, yes – it could be a whole post in itself. And talking of hyperbole, when I was a kid I used to pronounce it as ‘hyper bowl’!
    ;)

    You might enjoy my current post, by the way.

  25. Faldone says:

    What, no mention of “Thats (sic) illiterate”? Or was it ironic?

  26. Stan says:

    language hat: Agreed. Ambiguous ‘may’ can generate real (and unnecessary) confusion, whereas its/it’s rarely if ever does. It just annoys. Hence ‘the pet rock of pet peeves’.

    Val: I’ll see your ‘hyper bowl’ and raise you a ‘fatty goo’ (for fatigue), which entertained a whole room of schoolchildren the one and only time I mispronounced it in innocence.

    Faldone: No mention because I’m quite sure it was ironic.

  27. demurelemur says:

    In Stephen King’s It, if It had an apostrophe it would be It’s apostrophe.

  28. Stan says:

    demurelemur: True! And this hypothetical rogue-but-valid apostrophe would take my mind off the stupid spider.

  29. My own poor grammar and spelling weigh on me terribly so thank you!

  30. Stan says:

    Margaret: You’re welcome, and thanks for stopping by. I like your paintings!

  31. John Cowan says:

    I often type it’s for its, but (I hope) always catch it at once. I think it’s the more common error because it’s would be the regular formation, adding ‘s to it. The other possessive pronouns descend from time immemorial, but its dates only from the early 17th century, before which it or his was used (the King James Version consistently has his).

  32. Stan says:

    John: Yes, its is counterintuitive in a way, and it can take a conscious effort to get it right. It’s hardwired in me at this stage, though.

  33. [...] that used to feature in Waterstone’s will shuffle off to reappear in possessive its — as if to spite me. They might also find a niche in the aberrant “s-form” Tesco’s (from Tesco), which Lorraine [...]

  34. [...] editors too. To keep who’s in its rightful place, you can use the same mnemonic I recommended for it’s and its: just as it’s always means it is or it has, so who’s means who is or who has. Bring this to [...]

  35. John Cowan says:

    This just popped up in my feed again (maybe a Feedly glitch, or maybe because of an update), so I’m adding the (slightly edited) OED etymology of its,:

    Formed in end of 16th century < it + ‘s of the possessive or genitive case, and at first commonly written it’s, a spelling retained by some to the beginning of the 19th century.

    The original genitive or possessive neuter was his, as in the masculine, which continued in literary use till the 17th century. But with the gradual substitution of sex for grammatical gender in the concord of the pronouns, the indiscriminate use of his for male beings and for inferior animals and things without life began to be felt inappropriate, and already in the Middle English period its neuter use was often avoided, substitutes being found in thereof, of it, the, and in N.W. dialect, the genitive use of hit, it, which became very common about 1600, and is still [as of 1900] retained in Westmorland, Lancashire, S.W. Yorkshire, Cheshire, Lincolnshire, and adjacent counties.

    Finally, it’s arose, apparently in the south of England (London, Oxford), and appears in books just before 1600. It had no doubt been colloquial for some time previous, and only gradually attained to literary recognition. Its was not admitted in the Bible of 1611 (which has thereof, besides the his, her, of old grammatical gender); the possessive it occurs once (Lev. xxv. 5), but was altered (in an edition of 1660) to its which appears in all current editions. Its does not appear in any of the works of Shakespeare published during his life-time (in which and in the First Folio the possessive it occurs 15 times), but there are 9 examples of it’s, and 1 of its, in the plays first printed in the folio of 1623. In one of these at least (Hen. VIII, i. i. 18), the word is probably Shakespeare’s own (unless he wrote his).

    By this time it’s had become common in literature, from which the possessive use of it soon disappeared; the neuter his is found as late as 1675; the use of the = its continued almost as late in literature, and is still dialectal, as is also the periphrastic the … of it (o’t), as in Scots the heid o’t = its head. As its arose after the h of hit had been dropped, the form hits is not found in literary use, but it is the emphatic form of its in Scots, his heid strak hits heid.

    • Stan says:

      John, it probably materialised in your feed because of an update: every so often I add to the gallery at the foot of the post. Thanks for the edited OED history, which is highly interesting. The former legitimate status of genitive it’s doesn’t excuse it in current usage, but it may come as some consolation to those who are unable to get it right.

  36. […] where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,828 other followers