The Volatile Nature of It’s

By Maeve Maddox

Blasphemy: A law to protect an All-Powerful, supernatural Deity from getting it’s feelings hurt.

As you might expect, this quip by Ricky Gervais stirred strong responses when it was posted on Facebook. Some commenters were amused by it, but others most definitely were not. What caught my attention was not the heated religious discussion that Gervais’s irreverent comment provoked, but the grammatical scuffle that erupted over his erroneous use of it’s.

Commenters were able to “Like” individual replies. The first reader to point out that “it’s feelings” should read “its feelings” received 103 Likes. The comment that dismissed the objection–“It’s basic grammar and was probably a typo. Who cares?”–received only 7 Likes.

Is it too much to hope that this little poll–unscientific as it is–suggests that members of the reading public who care about the correct use of it’s may outnumber those who don’t? Probably.

Something this exchange does illustrate is that typographical errors, misspellings, and grammatical faults distract readers from serious discussions–even in that land of linguistic anarchy we call “social media.”

I’d be lying if I said I’ve never typed it’s where the context called for its. I’ve probably even allowed at least one disgraceful it’s to slip into print. For that reason, I must be grateful to the class of readers who can give a misused it’s the benefit of the doubt. Such tolerant folks assume it must be an unintended typo. After all, doesn’t everyone know that it’s is a contraction of it is and not a possessive adjective?

Alas, some typos are more forgivable than others, even in comment threads.

The accidental typing of hte or teh for the, for example, will go unremarked by all but the most mean-spirited nit-picking troll. It’s for its, on the other hand, elicits a visceral reaction in some readers. They can’t help it. No matter how deep or serious a discussion, a misplaced it’s or its will almost certainly bring it to a grinding halt.

Bottomline: Whether you think it matters or not, if you want to keep readers’ attention focused on the topic at hand, make sure you haven’t misused it’s before clicking “Reply” or “Submit.”

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14 Responses to “The Volatile Nature of It’s”

  • Anzac

    “Linguistic anarchy” … a nice turn of phrase.

  • Preciseedit

    As I’ve said many times, incorrect punctuation not only reduces credibility but also distracts readers.

    Nice to see you back, Maeve.

  • Matt Gaffney

    Ms Maddox is right to discuss this matter and her comment that “. . . typographical errors, misspellings, and grammatical faults distract readers from serious discussions- . . .” is certainly correct. In my mind, that prompts us to question who’s at fault.

    Is it the fault of the sloppy writer who fails to proof his/her work or is it the fault of a commenter for having redirected everyone’s attention from the intended subject to the error? I vote to blame the writer.

    Writing to prompt consideration by and discussion among others should be thought of as a rather sacred undertaking. Writers ask readers to pause and to reflect on a subject and on an opinion about the subject, with which opinion a given reader might or might not agree. Writers ask others for time and effort. As such, writers have an obligation to present their requests cogently, completely, and correctly.

    Errors of punctuation, diction, grammar, etc., distract readers and frustrate those who understandably want to get to the meat of the issue; also, such errors, when not corrected before publication, imply that the writer has insufficient respect for his/her prospective readers. They seem to be saying to themselves and to anyone who’ll listen, “There may be errors, but they’re no doubt minor and folks can figure out what I meant. I don’t have the time to go over my work with a fine-tooth comb. I have deadlines.” If the writer has scant respect for readers, why in God’s name should readers have any respect for the writer or his/her take on things?

    Side comments: Ms Maddox implies that “it’s” is a contraction only for “it is.” That’s not correct. “It’s” is also a contraction for “it has,” e.g., “It’s been a hoot and a half!” Also, there’s no such word as “bottomline.” The noun is “bottom line” and the adjective is “bottom-line.”

  • Preciseedit

    Whereas “teh” may be perceived as sloppiness or a typo, an incorrect “it’s” may be perceived as ignorance, particularly in cases where the writer has not already established mastery of punctuation. (Thus, this accusation doesn’t apply to Maeve, Matt, Dale, or most of the posters on DWT.)

    On a side note, the auto-correct function on iPads can produce incorrect spelling and punctuation, sometimes alarmingly so. And don’t get me started on Word’s grammar checker.

  • thebluebird11

    @PreciseEdit: Is it me, or should I say “welcome back” to you too? LTNS.
    I think I once accidentally typed an email with “it’s,” and when the reply came (with my original email in it), I was so mortified that I felt like doing a Dobby (if you know who Dobby is, from Harry Potter). Of course most people don’t notice these slips. My friends know me well, and I’m sure none of them would have wasted an opportunity to pick on me for that slip, if they had noticed it. When I text, I don’t even care anymore if there’s an apostrophe or not; I hate to say it’s too much trouble to do the extra keyboard work necessary to make that apostrophe appear, and the person on the other end (usually my 21-yo daughter) gets the message anyway. And I won’t get started on spellcheckers, autocorrect or grammar checkers either, or we’ll go way off topic and be here for a week!

  • Miss Grace

    My Catholic upbringing insists that the “i” in its be capitalized. We’re talking about God here right? However referred to; He, She God, It, Jesus, etc.

  • tjh

    I wonder whether the response to “it’s” v. “its” relates to the difficulty one had learning the distinction.

    I certainly found it quite a challenge, and as a result, decades later I still guard against confusing the two.

  • Chris

    These days “typo” is often used to mean an error involving typing characters in the wrong order, missing out characters because the keypress didn’t register, or typing extra characters by hitting adjacent keys. Its actual meaning includes spelling mistakes, too.

    I think the difference here is that if I type “teh” I have typed all of the correct characters but in the wrong order and that is most likely attributable to my fingers doing something other than what my brain intended.

    Typing “it’s” in place of “its” is very hard to do if your brain is trying to type one of them and not the other, since hitting the apostrophe by “finger mistake” is unlikely. A mistake like this is almost certain to be attributable to misunderstanding or not recalling correctly the rules of grammar.

    Most people will forgive clumsiness; if I accidentally drop an egg on the floor one time, it says nothing about me as a person. If I do something ignorant (misuse grammar) people will infer a lack of education and it is far less forgivable.

  • Roberta B.

    @Chris – My thoughts, exactly!
    @Matt Gaffney – I objected for a long time to the use of “it’s” as a contraction for “it has” or any other ” ‘s” as a contraction for “has.” However, I see it now is a very common and accepted use.

    Also, Maeve, nice to see you here again. I liked your post on “tribal-speak” a few days ago. Just that evening on a PBS show (Genealogy Roadshow), the lady-genealogist threw in more than one zinger – e.g. “Her and her sister……” as a subject, etc. She was explaining her research to the participant. It wasn’t like she was talking to one of her “homies.” I got the point of your article, but Geez! This was a program proudly presently by Public Broadcasting as, I assume, something educational. So, there should be even less tolerance for improper grammar in situations like that. Just saying……..

  • Chris H.

    What I don’t understand is how people misuse “you’re” and “they’re”
    As in “I saw you’re car parked they’re.”
    I can see how people might mistake “their” and “there” for each other, and even “your” when they meant “you’re,” but when the apostrophe comes in… how do they not see that?

  • Margaret

    As a teacher of middle school students, you have provided me a wonderful teachable moment. I made a great personal connection that, up until now, I have missed. Students this age HATE revision, but whenever I type examples of writing, grammar, etc. in real time using my projector, they are very quick to point out my typos. I need to turn the tables on them at that moment and talk about why they point out those mistakes, and ask them to think about how their own grammar errors impact their writing. Epiphanies are wonderful things. Thanks!

  • maevemaddox

    PreciseEdit, Roberta B.,
    Thanks. Nice to be back and in the thick of usage talk.

    Matt Gaffney
    As soon as I saw that third person “Ms Maddox,” I braced for the “BUT” that was sure to follow! You’re right, of course. The noun “bottom line” is usually written as two words in U.S. English. Merriam-Webster shows the noun as two words and the adjective as a hyphenated compound. The OED entry for the noun is hyphenated. My own feeling is that it will eventually become one word, but that is no excuse for flaunting convention on this of all sites. I spell it as one word because I have a site called BottomlineEnglish.com/. The one word Bottomline is a kind of signature word for me there. However, I’ll accept your criticism and not do it at DWT anymore. Omitting to mention that “it’s” can also be a contraction for “it has,” on the other hand, seems to me to have been a valid stylistic choice in the context.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hello. I agree with this totally, and I thank you:

    “There’s no such word as ‘bottomline’.”

    I have had occasion to write to foreigners (especially) and to native speakers that English is not a language that allows for the creation of compound words willy-nilly.
    To give some specific instances, English is not like Finnish, German, or Turkish.

    Sometimes, I point out to people that in English, you need to consider the patterns of similar words. Our words often come in families:
    “top line”, “blue line”, “gray line”, “green line”

    In contrast: “sideline”, “hardline”, “redline” (but not always).

    In a combat aircraft, the pilot could push the throttle to the redline to get maximum power from the engine, and “redline” was even used as a verb. On the other hand, many decades ago, the football team at the Univ. of Alabama was called the Thin Red Line. Before too many years, people decided that the Crimson Tide was a formidable nickname for all of the athletic teams at Alabama.
    “The Thin Red Line” is also the title of a well-known novel about combat in the South Pacific during World War II, namely on Guadalcanal.

    I have also read that many decades ago, the athletic teams at Georgia Tech were nicknamed the Golden Tornado, but before two many years, that was changed to the Yellowjackets.

    Somehow, I think that I would have enjoyed watching a game with the Thin Red Line versus the Golden Tornado.
    Of course, the Golden Tornado versus the Miami Hurricanes or the Univ. of Tulsa Golden Hurricane sounds interesting, too.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, I nearly forgot: the “Long Gray Line” refers to a large group of cadets at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy.

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