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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  • You never use contractions?

    Mr. Carpathia, how do you do?

  •  No we can not. Because it is wrong and bad and wrong and confusing and jarring and wrong. (Seriously, I do not get how anyone makes this mistake. It looks wrong. You just see it and your brain goes “Now I am expecting this phrase to be possessive.” When I see it, my mind comes to a crashing stop and I have to go back and reread the whole damned paragraph).  We have possessive pronouns in this language. You wouldn’t say “him’s” or “her’s”. And yes, it is etymologically true that the possessive “‘s” comes from the archaic formulation “Bob his number”, (a) that usage is not gramatically correct in modern english, and (2) “its” never used that construction.  Hell, if it did, it wouldn’t be “ticket his number”, it’d be “ticket its number” — the “its” would still be there.

    (Yes I am ranting. Because this particular error pisses me off and makes writing unreadable. It’s even worse than the greengrocer’s apostrophe.)

  •  Sometimes, the issue is when someone is being so ponderously dull or rude that you have no choice but to entertain yourself by picking at things that would ordinarily be easy to ignore. It’s kind of like watching a slow, boring movie and spending all of your time picking out plot holes that you would be able to ignore if the movie was fastpaced and exciting.

    Of course, I think it’s generally pretty rude to call someone out like that except in specific situations. If I’m talking to someone, or reading something, and I can figure out what it means, I’m not going to go hunting for spelling errors. That’s just unnecessary.

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

    This message brought to you by the Soylent Travel Corporation. Soylent: Made from the best stuff on earth.

  •  Damn. You beat me to the punch.

    (Though I can think of four. ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, ‘The Theme From Reading Rainbow’, ‘The Theme From The Neverending Story’, and ‘Seven Wonders’)

  • stardreamer42

    The one that floors me is “different to“, which doesn’t make any sense at all.

  •  I’m not sure what it means for “different to” not to make sense, over and above that it isn’t conventional in my dialect. There’s no reason I can think of for the idiom to be “different from” rather than “different to” or “different against,” other than historical reasons.

  • Jared Bascomb

    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.
    Lynne Truss refers to this as “the greengrocer’s apostrophe”.

    (And yes, I *did* just put the period outside the quotation mark because that’s where it effing *belongs* – at the end of the sentence!)

  • Jared Bascomb

    Beat me to it. Shame on me for not following the thread to page 2.

  •  But without the quotation marks to protect it, it might fall off!

    (I’m pretty sure that’s where the rule actually comes from, some kind of typesetter’s rules about what you’re physically allowed to do with metal sorts* that only take up the top or bottom half. I suspect that the full rule is actually “but only if you don’t have a single sort for ‘quotation mark directly above period’.” )

    (* Guess who just looked up what the name is for the piece of metal in typesetting that contains a single glyph)

  • Jared Bascomb

    As long as we’re venting, how about people who use objective pronouns instead of subjective pronouns, or vice versa?

    Or /*shudder*/ the dreaded use of “myself” instead of “me” (ie, “Please respond to myself or Chris”).

  • Joel McCrea wasn’t “blandly likable” in “Foreign Correspondent,” he was delightfully likable.  McCrea was a big, handsome guy with a wonderfully self-deprecating manner. There’s a reason the Preston Sturges chose him to play the lead in two of the greatest comedies ever

  • Well, Rainbow in the Dark actually is one of the two that I’m able to think of.  (The other one is sort of obvious.)

  • Well, that brings the total up to five, so I guess we’re getting closer to “so many.”

  • Kaleberg

    The OKCupid dating site used to have a blog where they’d analyze the data that their users provided. This included the answers to a number of questions, some of which were published publicly, while other answers were kept private. This led them to see if there were correlations between certain public and private answers that would allow one to get a good guess of a potential date’s answer to one question by asking another “proxy” question. For example, there was a high correlation between being willing to have sex on the first date and liking the taste of beer. It might be awkward to ask a direct question about having sex prematurely, but one could probably work in a question about beer rather easily. Another good proxy question was to ask whether one felt that proper spelling and grammar were important. More conservatively religious people were less likely to consider correct spelling and grammar important, while less conservatively religious sorts felt they were important. You can make of this what you will, perhaps on your next date.

  • mud man

    Netflix calls it Silent Witness, “availability unknown”. I hate it when that happens.

    I think Punctuation should be a Creative activity: as it once was. Call it punctuition! Also spelling and especially Capitialization.

  • banancat

     I’m extremely liberal and yet I’m a complete linguistic descriptivist.  I hope OKCupid doesn’t start setting me up with a bunch of conservatives.  However, the one person I’ve met from there so far is also liberal and also a descirptivist, so I guess that site worked its magic somehow.

    I’m actually surprised though, because language prescriptivism relies so heavily on appeals to both tradition and authority, so I would have guessed that conservatives skew heavily toward the prescriptivist side.  I wonder if instead it’s a function of education, where people get increasingly more prescriptivist until they reach a certain point in education, where they then go way back toward descriptivist.  Maybe for conservatives it’s a matter of just not caring or of actively being suspicious of people who seem educated.

    And of course, the prestige of certain dialects is one of the reasons I’m a descriptivist in the first place.

  • The Rainbow Connection song is about there being something out there in the feelings inspired by rainbows, stars, mysterious voices. The singer is pushing back against those who say rainbows are only illusions with nothing hiding behind them. It’s the singer who’s interested in what’s on the other side of the rainbow.

  • Also, the dreaded “It happened to (name) and I” construction.

  • Kaleberg

    OKCupid took a statistical approach. As I said, make of this what you will. (They also only sampled online dating site users.)

  • Lori


    I wonder if instead it’s a function of education, where people get
    increasingly more prescriptivist until they reach a certain point in
    education, where they then go way back toward descriptivist.    

    Or maybe it’s that Liberals, in spite of Conservative stereotypes about them, care more about communication than about proving how well-educated they are.

  • banancat

     But I’m the most liberal person I know and I don’t get all angry and offended when people use language in a non-standard way because in 99% of cases, the meaning is perfectly clear.

  • Carstonio

     Maybe for conservatives it’s a matter of just not caring or of actively being suspicious of people who seem educated.

    Their reaction might be that of a resentful younger sibling toward a tyrannical older one, viewing people who seem educated as pretenders to authority. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart


  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Better than free “chicken”.

    My local butcher advertises “fresh” pork. Hmmm.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    My pet grammar peeve of the decade is “amount” instead of “number”.

    Not grammar, but word choice: I am also heartily sick of “fresh” as an at-all-times synonym for “new”.

    On the class question (class issues having a tendency to make me twitch), I grew up in a working class/welfare class family, with no family members having any education beyond high school, and one parent having left school at the age of 15. My whole family thinks that knowing how to use language is important. I don’t like the implication that interest in and knowledge of language belongs to the middle and upper class.

    Incidently, I know lots of solidly middle class people who same “somethink” or “somefing”. I have no idea what that’s about.

  • badJim

    German doesn’t use an apostrophe for the possessive, it merely appends the “s”. The USGS doesn’t like apostrophes either; we have “Pikes Peak” instead of “Pike’s Peak”. We all love standards. That’s why we have so many of them.

  • EllieMurasaki

    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’. And at least sometimes it’s deliberate, not an enunciation thing, because they type it ‘thing’, not ‘think’!

  • From a very young age, I corrected people’s grammar and spelling, never understanding why doing so might upset them. That was one of many things about my childhood that make more sense following a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome last year.

    And if you want to make sure someone never mixes up “affect” and “effect,” just have them play Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. The game term “mind-affecting effect” makes for a great mnemonic.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    There are quite a few mangled phrases that were apparently misheard often enough by people who didn’t see them written down that they’ve transformed completely. The most interesting one I’ve noticed, because it is unheard of in my age group (early 30s) but commonplace in teens and early 20-somethings, is “versus” transformed to “verses”, thence to “verse”. As in “the Eels versed the Dogs in the season opener”.

  • Amaryllis

    Not grammar but usage: when I was young, if people were avoiding a place, they’d say they “wouldn’t set foot in it.”  Now, they won’t “step foot” there. When did that happen?

    (I know, it’s a perfectly clear expression.  It’s just a change that for some reason I notice every time I hear it.)

  • Amaryllis

     I have, because of reasons, just spent several days reading seventeenth-century sermons and speeches.

    It left me with a renewed appreciation of current orthographical standardization.

  • If you are writing in dialect already, isn’t proper grammar already kind of out the window? 

  • A very unfortunate sign at a local market read “Fresh” Fish.
    If they weren’t already well-known for having the best poke’ on the island that might have put me right off. 

  • Great song, but that still makes three unless you count Dio actually being in a band named Rainbow. Still not ‘so many’.

  • Ross Thompson

    Huh. I’d always thought the idiom was “another thing coming”. I had to re-read your example three times before I understood how it supports “another think coming”, and now I’m going to have to consider that.

    But habit alone will probably mean I keep on using the form I’m familiar with.

    As an aside, a friend of mind recently insisted that “case in point” was a corruption of “case and point”, and while this is the first time I’d encountered that, the Internet told me that this is a moderately common delusion.

  • I’ve seen Castle correct grammar without seeming snobbish and insufferable and simply one of the show’s callbacks to his being a writer. That might just be Nathan Fillion’s charm, though.

  • John Small Berries

     It’s is a contraction of “it is.”

    Or “it has”, of course.

  • John Small Berries

     There’s a lot of Renaissance dance music which uses “his” where we might use an apostrophe-s (“Sir John Smith his Allemande”, “Captaine Digorie Piper his Galliard”, “Sir John Langton his Pavane”, etc.), which I thought explained the apostrophe in possessive nouns (since I was taught that an apostrophe stands for missing letters), but it turns out to have been a bit more complicated than that.

  • I always learned it as “another think coming” and that “case in point” is a valid construction. Of course, this was back when I had to read books printed on paper and went to school uphill both ways.

  • Also, I’ve seen people write “intensive purposes”, indicating they heard the phrase “intents and purposes” but not quite.

  • AnonymousSam

    Only inasmuch as word choice and order are concerned, but it still needs proper punctuation. Unless your name is Anne Rice and you’re writing a valley girl, in which case, all the rules of punctuation go out the window and so does your copy editor.

    (Lasher was a very, very disappointing sequel to the The Witching Hour, but it would have been buried regardless for the absolutely atrocious writing of Mona Mayfair. I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I want to know what company let her get away with using more than thirty question marks in a five sentence paragraph so I know to avoid it when I publish something.)

  • christopher_y

    There’s a word for this, and the word is ‘eggcorn‘. It was coined by Geoff Pullum of the very wonderful Language Log about ten years ago, and quickly went into general use because it’s so useful. Somebody built a database of the darned things here.

  • Pepperjackcandy

    I notice that one of my favorites (?) isn’t on that list.  I don’t know where the confusion came from (though I suspect it may have been Harry “defiantly” telling Remus that Sirius deserved death in Prisoner of Azkaban), but there is a whole passel of young (at least I hope that they’re young) adults who use “defiantly” instead of “definitely.” 

    See, for example, “I’m no fan of Ronnie, but he was defiantly in the Army” )

  • The_L1985

    “Bokay” just broke my brain.

  • AnonymousSam

    Or did it boke your brakay?

  • The_L1985

     I’ve never seen it as “think.”

  • The_L1985

     My bro and I did that one a lot as little ones.

  • Leum

    From a very young age, I corrected people’s grammar and spelling,
    never understanding why doing so might upset them. That was one of many
    things about my childhood that make more sense following a diagnosis of
    Asperger Syndrome last year.

    One of the hardest things for me to learn as a child–and probably related to my undiagnosed-at-the-time Asperger’s–was that if people were wrong, they wouldn’t want me to correct them. It baffled me beyond belief. Surely if someone was wrong and you told them how to be right they’d be grateful!

  • “defiantly” and “definitely” are probably mixed up through the intermediate corruption “definately”.