July 30th, 2010

It’s the its/it’s, stupid

It’s the most common error in English, and Spellcheck doesn’t catch it (although Spellcheck catches me when I attempt to spell Spellcheck “Spellcheck,” much preferring two words or a hyphenation to my single word). This prompts me to recycle this post of mine (ever-so-slightly edited):

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 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.

46 Responses to “It’s the its/it’s, stupid”

  1. Occam's Beard Says:

    I yield to no man in pedantry, but “it’s” and “its” errors don’t bother me that much.

    The ones that drive me nuts are the one’s that drive me nut’s, i.e., the use of apostrophes in plurals. It’s (ah – I knew you’d check!) not that people just sprinkle apostrophes randomly, it’s that they consistently use them where they don’t belong (the dreaded “grocers’ apostrophe”).

    Those who aren’t sure of whether they should use an apostrophe should: 1) consider what they think is correct, and then 2) do the opposite. They’ll be almost perfect.

    Now about “lose” and “loose”… When did that problem arise?

  2. Dustoffmom Says:

    Regarding its vs it’s…..I always remember what my grammar teacher taught us. And that is to replace it’s with ’tis’ and see if it still makes sense. ie It’s (tis) time to be leaving vs it’s (tis) right wing bias. See? The latter doesn’t make sense. Works almost every time! (thank a teacher!)

  3. expat Says:

    Occam’s,
    I would guess the blogosphere had some influence. Quick typing in the comments leads to errors, and seeing errors printed screws up the automatic editor you developed in school. Aside from all my other acquired inconsistencies, I have a terrible problem now with the spelling of foreign names. Sometimes I do the English and sometimes the German. At other times I probably synthesize. Life was much simpler when everthing I dealt with was in English and followed AMA and Chicago Manual rules.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    Right wing bias? Yes it tis.

    It’s it’s when it is but its when it’s not.

    For more emphasis:

    http://miasmaticreview.mu.nu/mt-static/itsits.gif

  5. anna Says:

    The newest version of Word spell check includes both the familiar red and green squiggly underlines, but it has also added a blue squiggly underline. That one pops up if it thinks you are using a correctly spelled word wrong, as in the case with its/it’s. I think they must have gotten enough complaints that they did something about it.

  6. rickl Says:

    “Lose”/”Loose” drives me up the freaking wall. And I do believe it’s a recent development. I see it much too often to chalk it up as a typo.

  7. betsybounds Says:

    Dustoffmom, actually I think ” ‘Tis right-wing bias,” does make sense, as in, “It is right wing bias.” That danged right-wing bias will get you every time! :) In general, though, you’ve pointed out a useful rule.

    OB,

    I, too, yield to no man in pedantry–and this, as I think you and I have discussed before, extends to preferring the hard-nosed use of the masculine forms to serve as both masculine and neutral, and hating the awful substitution of the plural, which leads to real confusion sometimes. And the “its” vs. “it”s” mess really does bother me. I, also, have tried to figure out where it comes from, and the best idea I’ve come up with is that using “it’s” as the possessive follows the convention of forming other possessives–i.e. “Carol’s hat,” or “Mr. Smith’s Washington.” The other possessive pronouns don’t merely expand the exact corresponding personal pronoun–as in, “his” is not simply an expansion, or an addition to, “he;” neither is “hers” simply an expansion of “she.” They’re different words entirely, irrespective of their functions. “It,” though, is just “it,” and most other possessives that are based on expanding the identical word do so by following the convention of adding an “apostrophe-s.” So, I think that may be where the error comes from.

  8. betsybounds Says:

    Vanderleun @ 5:22: Excellent. You nailed it!

  9. Occam's Beard Says:

    Maybe “loosers” are an especially forlorn bunch of “losers.”

    Warming to the topic…when did quotation marks around a phrase equate to emphasis?

    And another thing … hey, you kids, get off my lawn! /curmudgeon mode

  10. PA Cat Says:

    I’m surprised no one has brought up the too/to, there/their/they’re, flout/flaunt, effect/affect, and reign/rein (as in “rein in”) mixups. I see those all the time on blog posts, not just blog comments.

    And yes, I had a tough-as-nails English teacher in high school, and I’ve been very grateful I did.

    {Waves at the yinzer in comments #7 and #8; apropos of the Buccos from yesterday’s thread, who could forget Bill Mazeroski’s Game 7 ninth-inning miracle in the 1960 Series? I was just a little kid then, and Lancaster was Phillies turf mostly, but anyone who could defend the honor of the NL against the Evil Empire from the Bronx was a hero that fall. My school even allowed the teachers to play the last two innings of that game on the radio so the kids could listen– that was quite a treat!)

  11. foxmarks Says:

    Po = no

    (possessive uses no apostrophe)

    But the mistake still happens. I think in ideas but type in phonemes. My pono mnemonic usually saves me from the “its” error, as it has become part of the mental soundtrack behind my thoughtstream. I most often mess up on their/they’re/there. I know what I want to say (write), but my fingers sometimes recall the wrong pattern.

    Errors such as these are always obvious if I take the time to re-read my typing.

  12. Charles Says:

    Your really shore about this weigh of ‘membering witch its too yous? As ewe can sea, its werking for me!

  13. betsybounds Says:

    “who could forget Bill Mazerowski’s Game 7 ninth-inning miracle in the 1960 Series?”

    No one, that’s who! That moment lives in Life and Legend, I have several copies of a greeting card bearing on its face a photo of the event. I’ve sent some of them out to friends over the years, but will keep, in the end, one copy for myself alone. I remember when it happened, I was a kid and huge Pirate fan, on one of baseball’s Great Days.

    Again, when I was a kid, we used to go to Forbes Field a few times each summer, and sit, always and by choice, in the right field stands. There, below us on the turf, with his matchless arm, was Roberto Clemente, Arriba-Riba! One of the great, all-time class acts of the game. We yelled and cheered for him, and he, in that fine and gentlemanly way of his, would remove his hat and bow to his fans in the stands. Who were us.

    Apropos of nothing in particular, I wouldn’t give you a nickel for soccer. Baseball is the great game, the one where trends matter, and where excellence will out over the long haul. We loves it, and we knows it’s (!) the game where a player must be good over that long haul, in a singular and task-focused way, to be really great.

  14. Artfldgr Says:

    I find it more interesting as to what a spell check knows or does not know..

    word knows misogyny, but not misandry, its opposite

    lots of others like this along ideological lines including knowing certain names and not others.

  15. betsybounds Says:

    I pay no attention to spellcheck. Pfui on it, that’s what I say.

  16. PA Cat Says:

    betsybounds

    I’ve recently seen a clip of Maz’s historic home run– and one thing that struck me at once was how nicely the fans were dressed then– some of the men had taken off their suit jackets by the ninth inning, but most were wearing white shirts and ties, and the women were wearing shirtwaist dresses or skirts and blouses– and jewelry–beads and earrings like my mother used to wear in late summer/early fall. And not a pair of blue jeans in sight– even the kids who swarmed Maz for his autograph after the game were wearing white shirts and clean, pressed slacks. And no pants on the ground, either.

    FWIW, Whitey Ford said that 1960 stunner was the only game where he saw Mickey Mantle crying in the locker room afterward.

  17. Occam's Beard Says:

    Ah, baseball and grammar.

    Good times, good times…

  18. betsybounds Says:

    Yes. Well. Those were of course the days of June and Wally Cleaver, when ladies wore heels and pearls while vacuuming the carpet. When we went to a game, we dressed like we were going out for a grand event–and we were.

    No pants on the ground? Well, pants on the ground has only become the fashion in recent years, hasn’t it–since the brothers from the ‘hood have come to set the style. There’s no actual accounting for it, as far as I know. I would certainly not consider it attractive.

    Nevertheless, we were sports fans. Back then. Back in the day. Not style fans. Sports fans. It’s not the same thing.

    And I’m sorry for the Mickster, there.

  19. rickl Says:

    I was only two years old in 1960, so I don’t remember that World Series game. But from what I’ve read, it was one of the greatest World Series games ever played. It was a titanic white-knuckle see-saw battle, especially in the last two innings.

    It was Game 7, for all the marbles, and a fitting end for that Series. It’s interesting that the Yankees won their three games by scores of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0; while the Pirates won their four games by scores of 6-4, 3-2, 5-2, and 10-9. Slow and steady wins the race.

    Here’s the Retrosheet page for that Series, and you can click on each game for the box score and play-by-play.

    As an aside, 1960 was the last season that each league had eight teams, which had been the case since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1961 the American League added two new teams, and the National League followed suit in 1962.

  20. PA Cat Says:

    When we went to a game, we dressed like we were going out for a grand event–and we were.

    That was true for railroad and airplane travel then, too. My mother and her sisters used to go into Philadelphia once or twice a year to shop at Wanamaker’s (actually, I think they enjoyed the train ride as much as shopping)– and they dressed up for the occasion. And if you look at airline ads from the late ’50s, the passengers are always wearing business suits or tailored dresses. Travel really was a grand event in those pre-jumbo jet, pre-terrorist days. I don’t know how much of it was a concern for style as such– I think maybe it was an appreciative respect for what was good in one’s life then, whether it was a baseball game or a train ride. My sense is that the WWII generation didn’t take pleasurable occasions for granted and that was why they dressed up for them.

  21. neo-neocon Says:

    PA Cat: When I was in junior high and high school, I was not allowed to leave the house in blue jeans, even to go shopping in the local stores (or perhaps especially to go shopping in the local stores), because it would reflect badly on my family. And I would not even think of getting on an airplane without wearing a skirt or a dress.

  22. rickl Says:

    PA Cat:
    Also, air travel was comparatively expensive back in the 1960s, and not everyone could afford it. I remember when the term “jet set” was commonly used to describe rich and famous celebrities.

    Since then, air travel has been democratized, with mixed results. On the one hand, it’s cheaper nowadays, so more people can afford it; but on the other hand it has largely lost its glamour. Back then you got full meals with champagne; now you’re lucky if they toss a bag of peanuts at you. Not to mention the TSA forcing you to remove your shoes and hand over your bottle of shampoo. And there are those occasional horror stories about passengers trapped aboard a plane for several hours sitting on the ground with no air conditioning, overflowing toilets, etc.

    I’ve never flown commercially, and frankly I’d rather take a Greyhound bus. At least they have to stop for gas now and then and I could get out and have a smoke.

  23. PA Cat Says:

    rickl

    Back then you got full meals with champagne; now you’re lucky if they toss a bag of peanuts at you.

    At least the loss of amenities solves the problem of inebriated passengers. One of my cousins flies for USAirways and has a batch of horror stories from his student pilot/first officer days about drunks on a plane and the problems they cause. In one case the guy invaded the cockpit of a small commuter plane because he was angry about being refused another drink by the flight attendant and decked the co-pilot. (This was back in the days when only a curtain served as the partition between the cockpit and the passenger cabin on smaller planes). My cousin was riding on the jump seat as an observer and the guy tried to take a swing at him too. When they touched down at Harrisburg a bunch of burly state troopers had formed Mr. Barfly’s reception committee. So the glamor of flying in those days did depend on the good behavior of most passengers as well as higher standards of service.

  24. betsybounds Says:

    For whatever it’s worth, and as an aside, we should recall that the Electoral College is a bit like the World Series: It doesn’t matter how many points any given team accumulates over the course of the Series. It’s a matter of how many games a given team wins. States won = games won. The total point differential is not determinative.

    The wizards are trying to change that now. We need to watch out.

    Just sayin’.

  25. expat Says:

    betsybounds,

    That’s a good analogy. We should make a mental list of similar ones to toss out when the EC topic comes up.

    Here in Germany, at every US election you have some TV reporter trying to explain the US electoral college and somehow giving the idea that it is not fair. As if Germany and the EU don’t have their own election quirks. It’s all a part of the emotional appeal to fairness and the inability to understand the need for rules. I just remembered how they vote in the Eurovision Song contest. It’s not fair that Malta and Germany get the same number of votes.

  26. JTR Says:

    My high school English teachers used the nuclear option regarding the apostrophe: Contactions (unless enclosed by quotation marks) were forbidden! To this day, I cannot use “can’t” without looking over my shoulder.

  27. JTR Says:

    I meant “contractions”. Contactions are a whole different topic.

  28. Ilíon Says:

    In my case, the main reason I sometimes start to type “it’s” when I mean “its” is becasue I so often *see* it written that way by so many people who just don’t care to try to get it right.

  29. Ilíon Says:

    I think the “it’s” vs “its” error came from not caring to get it right … and then was reinforced by spooften seeing it wrong.

    If you’ll notice, a high percentage of those who “it’s” when they should “its” also write such abominations as “city’s” when they mean “cities” … and “cities” when they mean “city’s” or “cities’” and “get’s” when they mean “gets.”

    Sometimes, It really get’s my goat :0

  30. Ilíon Says:

    I think that we conservatives should respond to the never-ending “liberal” attempts to destroy the Electoral College by working to Repeal the 17th Amendment — if we can repeal it, it will mean that we’ve convinced a high enough percentage of The People to understand and be serious about federalism.

  31. betsybounds Says:

    expat, Thanks. It is a good analogy. I read it somewhere or other, don’t recall where, back during the post-2000 election dust-up, when people were yelling (as they do every now and then) about doing away with the Electoral College. It’s also worth extending a bit, in view of what people now are trying to pull: When a team scores the most points in a game, the game isn’t chopped up and awarded proportionately based on fractions of the point total. The winning team wins the whole game. Similarly, the candidate with the highest vote tally wins the whole state, and its entire bloc of electoral votes–and so it should remain. This move towards awarding proportional electoral vote blocs needs to be slaughtered right now–that way lies madness.

  32. betsybounds Says:

    Ilion, good point about the 17th amendment.

  33. Terry Says:

    I know the difference but still make the mistake. I think it’s simply a matter of typing the familiar. The brain isn’t fully engaged.

  34. E.M. Crotchet Says:

    Artfldgr says:
    “word knows misogyny, but not misandry, its opposite”.

    The opposite of misogyny, surely, is philogyny. Misogyny and misandry are parallels or, perhaps, the obverse and reverse sides of misanthropy.

  35. Harrison Bergeron Says:

    Eye halve a spelling chequer.
    It came with my pea sea.
    It plainly marques four my revue,
    Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

    Eye strike a key and type a word,
    And weight four it two say,
    Weather eye am wrong oar write,
    It shows me strait a weigh.
    As soon as a mist ache is maid,
    It nose bee fore two long,
    And eye can put the error rite,
    Its rare lea ever wrong.

    Eye have run this poem threw it,
    I am shore your pleased two no,
    Its letter perfect awl the weigh,
    My chequer tolled me sew.

  36. Harrison Bergeron Says:

    Sorry – forgot the cite:
    http://www.phoebemoon.com/spellcheck.htm

  37. betsybounds Says:

    PA cat, I know it’s a bit late in the thread, but regarding Mickey Mantle crying after the final 1960 World Series, game: My husband just reminded me of the great Tom Hanks line in A League of Their Own: “There’s no crying in baseball!”

  38. PA Cat Says:

    betsybounds–

    I thought of that too– and hope it won’t bring tears to your eyes to be reminded that the Phillies MVP from my younger years, Mike Schmidt, hit his 500th career homer off a Pirates pitcher in Three Rivers Stadium.

    I was relieved when the NL Central was formed and the Pirates were moved into it because it took some excess heat off the old NL East rivalry.

  39. betsybounds Says:

    Funny, I never felt much rivalry with the Phillies. It was even more glaringly absent (can something be glaringly absent? :) ) when I moved to Houston and saw close-up the very strong and emotional rivalry between the Houston Oilers and the Dallas Cowboys–now, those guys know how to hold a rivalry! I got a lot of satisfaction in those days because the Oilers wanted Super Bowl rings so badly they could taste it, and they could beat everyone but the Stillers–and in those days no one was beating the Stillers. I tell you what, we had some testy Sundays at my house back then. My husband sat on one corner of the couch and I sat on the other. What fun it all was! :)

  40. SteveH Says:

    I have this weird thing going on with words i could spell all my life suddenly not looking right when spelled correctly. I’ve spelled illegal ten different ways lately and all of em look like a word from another language!

  41. Occam's Beard Says:

    The opposite of misogyny, surely, is philogyny. Misogyny and misandry are parallels or, perhaps, the obverse and reverse sides of misanthropy.

    OK, OK, I yield to one man in pedantry. But he’s absolutely right.

  42. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    One that I remember with fondness is “affect” vs. “effect”. I had a college stats professor who said he’d take points off if people made that mistake (on a statistics exam!) – so he explained it thus:

    “The drinking of orange juice can affect pregnancy in young women.”

    “The drinking of orange juice can effect pregnancy in young women.”

    (I was drinking orange juice when he wrote that on the board; I looked at my bottle in horror, and the whole class laughed.)

    - – -

    In re the electoral college: when people complain about it, I remind them of the 2000 Presidential election. BECAUSE of the electoral college, this is rare, and recount efforts were confined to a handful of counties in Florida. Without the EC, a close election would require a NATIONWIDE recount, every time… and it could be months before we know who the President is. That’s no way to run a country.

    In other words: as important as it is for elections to be fair, it’s as important to choose a president, have the answer be unambiguous, and get on with actually running the country. Elections can be messy; the Electoral College localizes and minimizes the problems.

    respectfully,
    DiB

  43. IgotBupkis Says:

    > It’s (tis) time to be leaving vs it’s (tis) right wing bias. See? The latter doesn’t make sense.

    Huh? “‘Tis left wing bias” is perfectly correct if one is speaking of CNN/ABC/CBS/NBC/MSNBC.

    We all know there is no such thing as right wing bias in those media, which is why your example doesn’t work…

    :oP

    I just shook my head with an its/it’s error made it into a nationally televised HBO commercial for about 6-odd weeks back in the early-mid 90s.

    When language professionals (copywriters, editors, graphic artists, and so forth) — literally hundreds of people — can look at it and not realize it’s wrong, the rot has gotten too deep.

    I primarily only bother with it any more when dealing with a rude jerk whom I wish to intentionally be sneeringly condescending to.

  44. IgotBupkis Says:

    > The opposite of misogyny, surely, is philogyny. Misogyny and misandry are parallels or, perhaps, the obverse and reverse sides of misanthropy.

    We lack a term, “gender inversion” is what I’ve used to describe it.

    Misogyny and misandry are gender inversions.

    The true test of sexism is “if you invert the genders — male for female, female for male” is the situation unchanged? Are the laws, attitudes, and expectations the same, within the bounds of rational physical limitations? If not, sexism is applying.

    Also, with regard to misandry vs. misogyny — until about 1990 the word misandry effectively didn’t exist. It wasn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary (which is supposed to contain EVERY non-specialist word in English) available in the 1980s. It wasn’t in any of a dozen other dictionaries I checked at the time, trying to figure out what the word would be (I finally figured it out what it had to be by allusion to polygamy vs. polyandry — but few, IF ANY, dictionaries had it AT ALL prior to about 1990, check for yourself using the publication date of any dictionary you bump into.

    This is a very, very curious omission to the language — because humans are verbal in our thoughts — we generally cannot think of a concept effectively until we’ve got a word-referent to use as a part of the process. This is why specialist languages develop.

    Until around the 1990s, most people weren’t consciously able to think extensively of the notion of women who hated men.

    Very, very strange.

    P.S., LOL — speak of the devil — my spell check had no problem with misogyny but wanted to correct misandry into misanthropy — I just added it to its dictionary.

  45. Occam's Beard Says:

    The true test of sexism is “if you invert the genders — male for female, female for male” is the situation unchanged? Are the laws, attitudes, and expectations the same, within the bounds of rational physical limitations? If not, sexism is applying.

    Exactly right. I call it the “exchange of variables” test. A way to implement it in debate is to ask the views of one’s interlocutor on a scenario from you’ve removed sex/race signifiers.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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