Its a problem, but its usually an honest mistake

Merrill Perlman of CJR’s “Language Corner” shares the above image of a 1768 lottery ticket signed by its purchaser, George Washington. It’s a venerable example of the its/it’s problem that vexes many of us.

Perlman writes:

Few usage experts would argue that “it’s” instead of “its” is perfectly OK, especially since the difference is so clear, at least to those who notice it. But what usage experts want and what people do are not the same thing.

But we’re not all doing this on purpose. I suspect that the misuse of “it’s” is far more common than the misuse of “its,” not because of any confusion over the distinction, but because it’s so habitual, when typing, to add that apostrophe.

And it’s even easier to do when writing longhand, with the momentum coming off the i and the t — dot, slash, stroke. It’s just too easy to add that apostrophe whether it’s in its proper place or not.

* * * * * * * * *

Krissy Scalzi is correct. Her husband John is mistaken.

Ed Cyzewski’s post about reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain reminded me of Erik Loomis’ recent discussion of “working-class literature” and “class-conscious novels.” Both touch on one of the great benefits of fiction — the chance to see the world through the eyes of someone very different from yourself. Empathy, in other words.

• I did not know that Vladimir Nabokov was also a professionally trained entomologist, which makes his take on Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” particularly interesting: “Some Gregors … do not know that they have wings.”

This makes me really want to go to a theater to see Harrow Alley. Here’s hoping I get to do that someday.

• And this makes me want to read George Saunders’ Tenth of December. Like Maureen Corrigan, I also had a moment of Saunders/Sanders confusion. Seeing a headline praising Saunders’ book, Corrigan says:

I was baffled because the only George Saunders I could think of was that old movie star who was always playing cads in films like Rebecca and All About Eve. (Actually, that actor’s name was George Sanders.)

Sanders doesn’t play a cad, though, in Foreign Correspondent, Alfred Hitchcock’s terrifically entertaining 1940 variation on the innocent person embroiled in an international scheme.

Sanders isn’t the innocent man — that’s a blandly likable Joel McCrea as the American hero of the story. The hero had to be an American because the movie is Hitchcock’s plea for the U.S. to come to England’s aid in World War II. But while the American gets the girl, the Brit gets all the good lines, and it’s great fun watching Sanders play a proto-James Bond years before Ian Fleming invented him.

(If you like innocent-embroiled-in-scheme stories as much as I do, here’s a fun double-feature: Foreign Correspondent followed by Do Not Disturb, sometimes titled Silent Witness. The hero of the latter is a young, mute American girl lost in Amsterdam. She witnesses a murder, gets chased by the killer, and in one of the movie’s many tributes-to/rip-offs-from Hitchcock, winds up crawling out of the same hotel window Joel McCrea crawled out of when he was in a similar situation.)

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  • EllieMurasaki

    “If you think X, you’ve got another think coming” = “if you think X, you need to think again”. It makes sense. What can “If you think X, you’ve got another thing coming” possibly mean? It doesn’t parse.

  • GDwarf

    The thing about “its” vs. “it’s” is that it’s an understandable mistake: “‘s” indicates possession, and “its” relates to possession, so shouldn’t it be “it’s”? Of course, it isn’t, just as it’s “his”, not “his’s”, but at first glance it’s something that seems weird. You have to learn it by rote, not by thinking.

    I think that’s really the source of pretty much all English punctuation weirdness: Even more than our spelling, our punctuation and grammatical rules are contradictory and often absurd*. My stance is that so long as the changed punctuation doesn’t impede understanding any then it’s fine. That said, one does have to wonder why so many people (and I used to be one of ’em) have trouble with using the apostrophe for possessive, not plural. Once you’ve got the idea it’s quite simple, but it’s incredibly unintuitive at first.

    I also find people using quotes for emphasis to be amusing, as I am unable to properly comprehend the confusion of ideas that would lead to such a thing. But it’s one I see everywhere, and it seems to be spreading. Just the other day I saw a warning that a knife was “sharp”, presumably meaning it’s only pretending to be sharp.

    *In a sensible system, punctuation would be tied to its sentence; That means that if you’re quoting a sentence then you end it with the punctuation used by the source you’re quoting, then put your own punctuation on the end of your sentence outside the quotes.

  • Steve Morrison

    This thread begs the question, why is it so common to make a mistake in your own English while honing in on someone else’s mistake? (Fortuitously, I’ve never had this happen to me! No doubt because I am the penultimate prescriptivist.)

  • I adopted a convention commonly used by computer enthusiasts in the 1970s and 1980s: preference for exactness in quotation over literary convention.

    So instead of writing things like:

    Type “CATALOG,” and then determine if the file “BLASTEM” is there.

    it would be rendered

    Type “CATALOG”, and then determine if the file “BLASTEM” is there.

    The idea being to avoid confusion by only specifying the exact command within the quotes.

    Even in non-computer contexts I tend to follow this convention when relaying the wording someone else has written or said.

  • “Home in”.

    You hone a blade.

    But you find the home of a target.

  • Kirala

    I was more curious as to the identity of the ultimate prescriptivist, but I suspect that search would be as fruitful as discovering why this thread is supposedly begging questions rather than raising them.

    I actually hadn’t caught the hone/home thing. Fortunately, I never claimed to be the ultimate grammar geek. Perhaps I could achieve the penultimate tier.

  • GDwarf

     I suspect that my own ideas of how punctuation should work are informed by my computer background. I treat any punctuation that surrounds something (quotes and brackets, mostly)* as cutting it completely off from what’s around it, as if it was its own function, and so it must have its punctuation either taken with it or completely discarded. Further, you can’t take punctuation from outside and put it inside, as in your example.

    Also: I rather suspect Steve Morrison was making a joke. :P

    *Yes, yes, I’m not doing it with these brackets. My defence is that it doesn’t get a capital because it’s not really a sentence, which is also why it doesn’t get a period on the end.

  • Ross Thompson


    What can “If you think X, you’ve got another thing coming” possibly mean? It doesn’t parse.

    That hardly rules it out from being an idiom, though. cf “I could care less”.

  • EllieMurasaki

    True fact.

  • There is an empirical rule of thumb on the Interwebs that in the course of pedantically correcting someone else one will invariably make one’s own mistake. Which is what seems to have happened with SMorrison and is no doubt present in my own posts. :P


    Surely if someone was wrong and you told them how to be right they’d be grateful!

    My RP-gaming friends call me the anti-rules lawyer because I always learn the rules of any game system inside-and-out, but don’t try to exploit them.

    For some reason they are never grateful when I remind the GM of forgotten rules that disrupt the PCs’ brilliant plan or put us at some disadvantage.


    I keep hearing people say ‘another thing coming’ when context (if you think X, you’ve got etc) clearly shows they mean ‘another think coming’.

    Judas Priest did us no favors here.

  • Carstonio

    I had never heard of the “think” version, and I’m even more surprised to learn that this was the original version. Rock lyrics live in their own world where grammar rules are guidelines at best, where “baby” is the default endearment, where “ain’t got no” and “don’t need no” are perfectly valid.

  • “It’s”  is so infuriating because when I think about it logically I reach the conclusion that I should use it the wrong way round. 

    1a) The cat sat on the shelf; it’s collar was red.

    The collar belongs to the cat, so you use the possessive apostrophe. Equiv:

    1b) Jake the cat sat on the shelf. Jake’s collar was red.

    Now I’ve trained myself out of that, but: god damn it, grammar!

  • The_L1985

    I’d assumed it meant “the thing that’s going to happen to you isn’t the thing that you think is going to happen.”

    Thus, the situation you’ve got coming isn’t what you think–instead, you’ve got another thing coming.

  • 1c) I sat on the shelf. I’s collar was red.

    1d) She sat on the shelf. She’s collar was red.

    See, no, it’s not logical that it be the other way. Do you see what you did there?

    The cat sat on the shelf; it’s collar was red.


    Jake the cat sat on the shelf. Jake’s collar was red.

    In the first example, you changed “the cat”to “it”, in the second, you didn’t change “Jake” to “him”.

    Because “it’s collar” is wrong for exactly the same reason that it’s not “Him’s collar”

    Possessive pronouns don’t use the “‘s” construction. None of them do. It’s not “I’s”, “You’s”, “He’s” (or “Him’s”), “She’s” (or “Her’s”, though I have totally seen people do “his and her’s” as a kind of greengrocer’s apostrophe), “It’s”, “Us’s” (Curiously, I do not think I’ve ever seen someone write “Our’s”), or “They’s” (But Them’s the breaks).  “It’s” isn’t an exceptional case it’s the general case of how possessive pronouns work.

  • P J Evans

     Amaryllis, I’ve been posting from family Civil War-era letters and papers on my blog. Standardized doesn’t even come near them. But reading the stuff out loud does give you a feel for their speech patterns. (They spelled by ear – it means little words are usually wrong, but big ones are usually right.)