The Truth About “It’s”

By Maeve Maddox

The first article I submitted to DWT was on the error of writing it’s for its.

I was too late. Michael (It’s or Its?) had beaten me to it.

No doubt about it — the error of writing it’s for its is on everybody’s list of top ten errors that damage a writer’s credibility.

So why do so many of us keep making this error in our drafts?

As well as I know the rule, as many times as I have corrected the error in the manuscripts of others, the occasional it’s for its creeps into my own writing and must be caught in the final revision.

Why do we do it?

Because our subconscious mind tells us that the spelling it’s as a possessive is not “un-English” in the way that other errors are.

We write the house’s roof, so why not write it’s roof? The error it’s for its is the result of an instinctive mirroring of the possessive apostrophe s we use to form the possessive of nouns.

Here’s the kicker: when the third person neuter possessive adjective came into the language in the 16th century, it was spelled it’s for the very reason that the new form was modeled on the ‘s of the possessive noun. The spelling it’s for the possessive adjective was acceptable “down to about 1800” (A.C. Baugh, A History of the English Language, p. 295).

Nowadays, however, to write it’s roof instead of its roof marks a writer as pitiably ignorant of the rules of punctuation and orthography.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that we throw the rule out the window. It’s too firmly established for us to disregard it. All I wish to point out is that the error–while a mark of carelessness if permitted to escape the final revision of your manuscript–is the result of linguistic instinct, not obstinacy.

Moral: Rules of behavior are often arbitrary, like driving on the right side of the road in a given country. Arbitrary or not, we ignore them at our peril.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


9 Responses to “The Truth About “It’s””

  • Zach Everson

    Great topic. I saw this mistake the other day and was about to write a post on the subject.

  • Patricia – Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker

    I just remember that “it’s” means “it is”. If I am not wanting to say “it is”, then I use “its”.

  • Arigem

    “…like driving on the right side of the road in a given country.”

    Great article. And I think you meant “the correct side of the road” 😉

  • Maeve

    Arigem,
    Thanks. But no, I meant “right,” as opposed to “left.”

  • Arigem

    Really? I thought because you used “a given country” that you meant “the correct side of the road in (any) given country”. If you meant right (as opposed to left), wouldn’t you have to specify a right side-driving country? Sorry, I realize I’m being pedantic!

  • John

    Sorry Maeve, I disagree.

    “Its” is the neuter equivalent of his and her.

    In the case of “The house’s roof”, the apostrophe denotes an abbreviation of “The house, its roof”.

    The same applies with “Jack’s car” – Jack, his car.

    Wonder why we don’t say e.g. “Mary’r book” though… 😉

  • Also John

    Sorry Maeve, I disagree.

    “Its” is the neuter equivalent of his and her.

    In the case of “The house’s roof”, the apostrophe denotes an abbreviation of “The house, its roof”.

    The same applies with “Jack’s car” – Jack, his car.

    Wonder why we don’t say e.g. “Mary’r book” though… ;-)”

    Sorry John, but this is wrong. The ‘s suffix to indicate possession does not come from an abbreviation of its or his. This is a folk etymology, as explained here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_possessive#History

    “In Old English, -es was the ending of the genitive singular of most strong declension nouns and the masculine and neuter genitive singular of strong adjectives… In Middle English the -es ending was generalised to the genitive of all strong declension nouns. By the sixteenth century, the remaining strong declension endings were generalised to all nouns. The spelling -es remained, but in many words the letter -e- no longer represented a sound. In those words, printers often copied the French practice of substituting an apostrophe for the letter e…”

    This should also answer your question about “Mary’r book”.

  • Holly

    “All I wish to point out is that the error–while a mark of carelessness if permitted to escape the final revision of your manuscript–is the result of linguistic instinct, not obstinacy.”

    I am, perhaps, a little jaded when it comes to commonplace grammatical errors, however I personally feel you are being a little too optimistic here. I enjoyed your article and I agree with everything you have written, but I have been aggravated by both superfluous and absent apostrophes too many times to be convinced that, in this instance, the majority of people write “it’s” in place of “its” due to linguistic instinct. This may be true in certain cases of genuine typographical errors, however I believe that, in a great many cases, it is because people simply do not have a clue.

    I see far too many signs advertising, “Egg’s half price”, “Lady’s toilets”, and “Get you’re fresh fruit and veg here”, to find it plausible that anything close to the majority of people have any concept of denoting possession whatsoever.

  • Benny

    This error has another source that hasn’t been mentioned above: some of us were taught the incorrect usage in school.

    I actually learned the correct usage in my first years of school in California. Then I moved to Utah, where I would get papers back with the word “its” circled in red with a big apostrophe added. So I adopted the incorrect usage, and 9 more years of English teachers found no fault. I was not correctly corrected until my first year of college in Oregon.

    I’m inclined to see this as a regional problem, since incorrect usage of “it’s” is nowhere near the worst incorrect teaching I received in Utah’s public schools.

Leave a comment: