Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Top 20 Grammar Errors: It's versus its

We have reached number 20 in the top twenty grammar errors, and I know some of you have been impatiently waiting for this one:
It’s versus its.
Today’s grammar error is kind of a shout out to error number 9—the possessive apostrophe error. I believe we have also discussed word endings, and today we’re going to look at a lot of things: possessive pronouns, the plural s word ending, and the possessive ‘s ending.

The Mistake

The mistake here is simple enough.
Its denotes ownership.
It’s denotes the contraction it is.
But why do people make this mistake? I believe, for the most part, writers make this common mistake because the two words sound the same. The only item separating the meanings is a punctuation mark.

Possessive Pronouns

Let’s look at the pronouns he and she for a minute. The possessive forms are his, her, and hers.
·         His coat.
·         Her table.
·         That table is hers.
Even though in error number 9, we talked about the apostrophe s denoting ownership, none of the above pronouns include the apostrophe. They just tack the s at the end and that’s it.
The pronoun it is no different.
·         Its coat.
Normally, of course, a plain old s would denote plurality.
Cats don’t own anything; there are just a lot of cats.

Possessive ‘S

Take a look at this:
John’s cat.
The apostrophe s tells us that John owns a cat. But:
·         It is a nice cat.
·         It’s a nice cat.
·         It has stripes that go length-wise.
·         It’s stripes that go length-wise.
Simply put, many possessive pronouns don’t include an apostrophe. Look at these other possessive pronouns:
·         My
·         Mine
·         Yours
·         Ours
·         theirs
·         Whose
Not one of the above includes the apostrophe s. Neither does its.
However, let’s confuse the issue with indefinite pronouns, because they all take an apostrophe s to denote ownership (which may be another reason we are confused with its):
·         One’s
·         Somebody’s
·         Everybody’s
·         Another’s
·         Everyone’s
·         Everything’s
·         Nobody’s
·         Somebody’s
·         Someone’s

The History

Interestingly, the missing apostrophe in its is a rather recent change to English grammar. Not until the early 1800s was the apostrophe dropped. Apostrophes aren’t used much in English either. The apostrophe occurs on average once every twenty sentences or so (in French, they occur at least once per sentence). But in 2009, the Birmingham City Council dropped all apostrophes from their street signs. St. Paul’s Square became St. Pauls Square.
Apostrophes do not have a lot of rules or make a lot of sense. Much apostrophe usage has been handed down to us by the inventions of printers of the early 1800s and reflect usage as opposed to actual, real grammar.
For example, the word loved.
In the past, loved used to be pronounced as a two syllable word:
A lot of poetry was printed in the early 1800s though, and many poets preferred the single syllable pronunciation. Printers replaced the e in loved with an apostrophe to mark that the e should not be pronounced.
Eventually, the two syllable pronunciation of loved lost favor, the apostrophe was removed and the e returned because the apostrophe was considered redundant.
Birmingham cited issues with GPS functionality as their reasoning why they removed apostrophes from their street names. Text messaging has nearly destroyed apostrophe use as well. Possibly, in the foreseeable future, we won’t have an issue with its versus it’s because we’ll eventually deem the apostrophe unnecessary. However, until that happens….


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