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.)

"Can you please explain how you separate evangelising from politics?"

Sunday favorites
"Many people know each other in lots of places.When you say "everyone is welcome" does ..."

Sunday favorites
"Or decide if they've just gone full Russia and can't even be bothered coming up ..."

Sunday favorites

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • My problem with The Rainbow Connection is the assertion that lies within the question.  Honestly, apart from the song itself, I can only think of two songs about rainbows.  That doesn’t really count as “so many” as far as I’m concerned.

  • aunursa

    It’s” is a contraction of “it is.”
    Its” is a possessive pronoun.

    The one grammatical pet peeve of mine even more than it’s/its is the misuse of “farther” and “further.”  In many instances, such as it’s/its and affect/effect, one word is overused while the other is underused.  It has been my experience that the vast majority of times “farther” is used when “further” is appropriate, and “further” is used when “farther” is appropriate.  At least 80 percent of the time it seems that the wrong word is used.  Even authorities that should know better (print media) can’t seem to get it correct.

    farther – refers to physical distance
    further – refers to other than physical distance

    It’s easy for me to remember: farthur has “far”

  • Jim Roberts

    For our esteemed host, I would recommend the most excellent book, “Vera,” which tells the story of the great author as it should be told – from the perspective of his relationship with his wife. For more on his work as a scientist, try “Nabokov’s Blues.”

  • The use of “s” and “‘s” and “s'” is vexing because the rules are not 100% consistent. As a result for several years I misapplied the rules about apostrophes and plural possessives.  (-_-)

  • Vermic


    That film where Dudley Moore plays a drunk with a flatulence problem.

  • My parents taught me that one should only ever add the apostrophe in the case of a contraction of the words “it is”.  

    However, since I never use contractions in my writing (unless I am quoting or deliberately imitating spoken vernacular for effect) I end up never using an apostrophe in this case.  

  • vsm

    I recently discovered Tom Conway, George Sanders’s older brother who appeared in three of Val Lewton’s classic B horror films back in the early forties. He too had that British charm thing going on, though he was less of a cad; only the psychologist he played in Cat People could really be described as such, though he was quite the bastard. Oddly enough, he plays another psychologist with the same name but significantly better ethics in The Seventh Victim, my favorite of the series. It’s also notable for having a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian woman for a film made under the Code. Why, she doesn’t even die. Conway also appeared in I Walked with a Zombie, which is Jane Eyre with zombies. Ahead of his time, that Lewton.

    Neither of the Sanders brothers had very happy ends. Tom drank himself to death in 1967 while George committed suicide in 1972.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’ve been steadily driving myself insane trying to determine when to use apostrophes when abbreviating or quoting within dialogue.

    “Don’t ‘darlin” me!”
    “As I said, ‘darlin’,’ ”

    (You and me both, Lindsay.)

  • I followed a web site years ago that posted photos of signs (mostly handwritten) displayed in stores, especially grocery stores. The two most common punctuation peculiarities were putting words inside quotation marks for emphasis and sticking apostrophes in front of the “s” at the end of all sort of words.

    I suspect that’s why it’s more common to see “its” misspelled “it’s” than the other way around: people remember some rule about “apostrophe-s”, but they can’t recall the context.

  • Carstonio

    There’s apocryphal story about a state tourism agency using the advertising line “It’s Places, It’s People.”

  • Miff

    Can we just let language evolve to the point where it’s is the proper possessive. I mean, I know it can be a contraction for “it is” but can’t it also be a contraction for “it his”, like “ticket his number”*?
    * According to some people this is what “ticket’s number” is short for.

  • Hilary

    Then vs than drives me nuts, and prey/ pray.  I once got them mixed up during an evolutionary biology test, and spent three paragraphs about preditor/pray relationships.  Luckily I got the science correct, and the teachor forgave an intersting spelling mistake.  She also got a kick out of how many euphemisms I could find for naked mole rats, like ‘indecently exposed mall rodentia’ but at least that was deliberate.  And again, my science was correct. 

  • Leum

    I find discussions of how awful improper grammar is to be troubling. Because there’s a huge element of class and education bias in such discussions, with the implication that not having been educated on what is, frankly, utterly irrelevant to communicating your message nine times out of ten, should be used as a reason to discount what is being said. Perhaps the quintessential example of this is the scene in Sherlock where Holmes repeatedly interrupts his interviewee to correct his grammar, a scene played not to show that Sherlock is a jerkass, but to show how awesome he is.

  • Thanks for mentioning my post Fred!

  • histrogeek

     I mentioned this on Scalzi’s blog as well. Either Kermit has a biased sample based on his limited experience as a frog in the Everglades (movie night or not, I’m guessing not they didn’t get first-run movies or much new music) or as Kermit himself would say poetic license baby (OK he maybe wouldn’t).
    It’s true that there really aren’t sooooo many songs about rainbows. Though some more common subjects would threaten his G-rating.

  • histrogeek

     I’m not sure that’s how that seen is meant to be seen. I felt that it emphasized what a sociopath Sherlock was. Here’s a guy who killed someone and who is himself likely to be executed, but Sherlock is pedantically and impatiently insisting on correcting grammatical mistakes, as if that was what was really important.

  • Foreigner

    Rules? Who wrote the rulebook?

  • The_L1985

    I hate quotation marks for emphasis.  I keep seeing them as those “air quotes.” I’ll see a sign that says something like:

    “Free” Chicken

    So…not really free?

  • The_L1985

     Well, it is.

  • The_L1985

    Now I’m picturing a mantis as a Catholic priest, for some reason.  “Let us prey…” *crunching of insect exoskeletons*

  • The_L1985

     And on the subject of silly things written in college classes:  I once had a math modeling project involving the changing water level of a lake due to increased water usage by the town of Smallville.  One of my findings was that the lake’s water level would quickly become too low for marine life to survive.  On the paper:

    “If this were the Smallville, then Clark Kent would be able to use his superpowers to save the lake.  But it isn’t, and so Lost Lake becomes uninhabitable by the end of the simulation.”

  • P J Evans

    sticking apostrophes in front of the “s” at the end of all sort of words

    For the last several weekends, I’ve been seeing a sign down the street for “TOOL’S”. I always wonder what the tool has.

  • P J Evans

    So – what is on the other side of a song?

  • vsm

    There’s a lot more to language than getting your point across. Using nonstandard grammar (though this is really a case of ortography) in an improper context will make you look incompetent and at least I have no desire to change it. If we refuse to consider certain uses of language bad, how can we recognize other uses of language as good? (To make myself look a bit less of a snob, I should acknowledge I made at least one bonafide grammar mistake in my previous post. I should probably register so I could make more of my mistakes disappear.)

    As for the scene in Sherlock, I thought the point was him trying to annoy the interviewee to see if he’d lose his temper. He did and Sherlock concluded he probably was guilty.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Correct response: requiring better education, not allowing worse grammar.

  • histrogeek

    “One of my findings was that the lake’s water level would quickly become too low for marine life to survive.”

    Oh noes, vocabulary mistake! I am distraught! I must spend the rest of the day recovering from the assault on my brain and my mother language! O woe is I!

    It should be aquatic (or for added pedantry lacustrine) life in the lake. Marine life is only in the sea or ocean. 

  • Lori

    I loved the commentor who mentioned the possibility of Kermit being a Ronnie James Dio fan. That gave me the giggles.

  • Madhabmatics

     Teilhard de Chardin, iirc, wrote something along the lines of the idea that it is lucky that insects can’t grow very large, or they may have evolved understanding more quickly than us and been the species that was granted the Image of God.

    He also goes on to argue that it is our duty to bring other animal species to that point of understanding. It’s too bad godawful Dan Simmons is the only sci-fi writer to go for Teilhard stuff in his stories.

  • Boidster

    “Different than” is my biggest (but, to my detriment, not my only) pet peeve. There is now a direct line from ear to brain, such that if I’m in the kitchen or bedroom or wherever, not watching the teevee, and whoever is the talking head of the moment says “different than” I will automatically say “different from“, without ever hearing anything else the head said. Probably I would do it in my sleep. The President said it a couple of weeks ago at a press event or something, and I had a sad.

    Better/worse/more/less then is probably a close #2.

    Well, I’m pretty fun at parties I think, why do you ask?

  • Part of it may be a British/US usage thing.

    As I understand it British English uses “different to” whereas US English usually uses “different than/from”.

  • Carstonio

    Now I want to hear Kermit sing “Rainbow in the Dark.” Both Dio and Rob Halford would be in my top 5 for best singers in heavy metal.

  • Carstonio

    What are your favorite grammatical conflicts that amount to religious schisms? My first though was the Oxford comma, where I picture grammarians pelting each other with copies of the Chicago Manual and Gregg Reference.

  • Amy

    Re: the Rainbow Connection and comma placement:
    When you’re listening to a song how are you supposed to “hear” a comma?  Is it assumed any time there’s a pause? 
    Why are there so many, songs about rainbows…

    The comments on that article are too funny.  I loved yours, histrogeek!

  • EllieMurasaki

    That’s not a comma, that’s a caesura. (Mandatory word break in poetic meter. Big thing in Latin poetry.)

  • histrogeek

     You laugh, but you have never seen copy editors on a discussion board. (Shutter)

  • The_L1985

     I know this; I really do.  Honest!  I just….damn.  How did I forget that one?  I live near an ocean!

  • The_L1985

     Don’t forget could/should/would of (I’m cringing at typing it even as an example) and “one in the same.”

    Double shame-points if it’s in written/typed form.

  • The_L1985

     Caesuras always bugged me, for the simple reason that people continue to use a comma even where a period/question mark obviously goes there instead.

  • Kirala

     You and I saw that Sherlock scene differently, then – I’d’ve sworn that the point was that Sherlock is an insufferable know-it-all, or at least bored enough to be terribly rude.

  • Leum

    My perception of the Sherlock scene may have been colored by my rather snobbish and grammar nazi-ish friend practically orgasming while watching it.

  • ReverendRef

     So – what is on the other side of a song?

    The B-side.

    I’m well past the age where people don’t necessarily know what that means.  When Kid Ref was much younger, we went to dinner at an eclectically-decorated restaurant.  Several of their decorations were old 45’s.  She pointed out that “those cd’s on the wall are really big.”

    Luckily, she now knows better.

    **also double checking to make sure I’ve made no grammatical mistakes on a thread about grammatical mistakes.

  • P J Evans

     If I felt like getting all pedantic on you: that’s the other side of a record. *g*

  • P J Evans

     I worked with someone (a college graduate, in fact) who consistently wrote about ‘hand’s on sessions’.

  • AnonymousSam

    This February, I had the misfortune to see a sign advertising bokay’s of rose’s.

  • ReverendRef

     I suppose that would be true — but when people call radio stations to make a request, they ask for a song, not a record.  Therefore the other side of the record is also the other side of the song.  So the flip side of both the song and the record is the B-side.

    Oooh … oooh … the beginnings of the B-Side Flame War.  :P

  • vsm

    That does sound pretty dire.

  • Dogfacedboy

    So – what is on the other side of a song?

    Back in the days of 45 rpm records, it was usually another song.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I thought the other side of a song was its play-it-backwards Satanic message.

  • ReverendRef

     So . . . if the label on the B-side came off, would that be considered the Dark Side?

  • Jenora Feuer

    I followed a web site years ago that posted photos of signs (mostly
    handwritten) displayed in stores, especially grocery stores. The two
    most common punctuation peculiarities were putting words inside
    quotation marks for emphasis and sticking apostrophes in front of the
    “s” at the end of all sort of words.

    There’s a reason why one of the common terms for the extra apostrophe being added in a plural is the Greengrocers’ Apostrophe.