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Its Time: That Ol' Apostrophe Again

Of the many small errors that bedevil many writers — and enrage their teachers and editors — there is perhaps none so simple to understand, and explain, than the use of "it's" when "its" is meant.

It should be easy: "it's" is a contraction of "it is," the way "can't" is a contraction of "cannot." The apostrophe's role here is to signal that a letter has been left out. Other languages have similar signals: the French "hôtel" uses a circumflex to signal that it has adopted the Old French word "hostel" and dropped the "s."

"Its," on the other hand, is an adjective indicating possession, the "sexless" version of "my," "his," "her," etc. None of those adjectives have apostrophes, so why should "its"?

Except that, of course, an apostrophe is used to indicate possession, as in "the library's book." Why, then, it shouldn't be "it's book" instead of "its book" is a question for the ages, and the linguists. Let's just stipulate that it's not "it's."

This is not a new mistake, of course. It's been going on for hundreds of years. A reminder came in the form of a rerun of the TV show Pawn Stars, in which someone was trying to sell a lottery ticket signed by George Washington.

While this image is not of the same ticket (this one is from Wikimedia), it's nearly the same. In addition to noting what looks to us to be odd capitalization and configuration of the double "s," take a look at that possessive adjective.

Now, this can't be blamed on some poor "uneducated" buffoon, since not everyone could write in 1768, and anyone allowed to letter or typeset documents had to have had a fair bit of schooling. And if our first president didn't object to that misuse, who are we to judge?

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. That's why words like "alright" and "irregardless," which make many people cringe, are well on their way to becoming standard English.

And so, it appears, is "it's." Garner's Modern American Usage lists "it's" misused as "its" at Stage 3 of the five-stage Language-Change English, commonplace but not acceptable if you're writing to your English teacher. But the more people use it, the more acceptable it becomes. Someday, perhaps, we can say unequivocally that it's time for its time.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 18th 2013, 4:43 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Surely the fact that so many get it wrong is an indication that whatever is going on is not "simple" .
Thursday April 18th 2013, 7:48 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
So its a standoff? Or is it a stand-off?
Thursday April 18th 2013, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Rain
Thursday April 18th 2013, 11:11 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
Karen D., I think there's a difference between "simple" (as in, "uncomplicated") and "easy" (as in, sort of like "natural" or "intuitive").
Thursday April 18th 2013, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
It's just that whenever I see "its" when it should be "it's" and I see "then" when it should be "than" I assume the author is a numbskull. It's even more true if "irregardless" is thrown into the mix. I am often wrong.
Thursday April 18th 2013, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
The misplacement of 'it's' is confusing to me as I read. I immediately think 'it is' when it shouldn't be.

It just takes a bit of thinking, and ignoring Word's correction of what shouldn't be!
Friday April 19th 2013, 10:37 PM
Comment by: Mary Ellen V. (Saginaw, MI)
Its/It's has been one of my many quixotic language crusades. I recently entered a neighborhood Planet Fitness to suggest that they had wasted a gigantic 'e' on their outside sign declaring that they were a "no judgement zone." But, of course, they were next door to Good Time's Pizza, so who am I to judg'?
Sunday April 21st 2013, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Mary Ellen, I had to Goggle 'judgement/judgment'. I always keep the 'e', and sure enough, that too, is a bit twitchy, British, American or neither or either.

I prefer the sound implied with the 'e'. Without it, the word just looks wrong! (That comment is the bane of English teachers, I know.)

But who the heck is Time? LOL
Sunday April 21st 2013, 1:42 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Every year, the PTA at the school where I taught English bought the teachers small gifts to show appreciation. One year, we each received a plastic water bottle, complete with a cheery message boldly and permanently imprinted: "Union Middle School loves it's teachers!" The irony is that one of the English teachers had filled out the order form for the bottles, and she had spelled "its" correctly, without an apostrophe. The bottle-printing company had "corrected" what they thought was her mistake, adding the Floating Comma From Hell. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, fix it 'till it is!

The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday April 23rd 2013, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Ann I.
I'll jump off a bridge if it's ever becomes its or if judgment ever becomes judgement or. forbid, if irregardless ever slips into the rong column.

Are we all just becoming a bunch of lazy numskulls?

Ann I. (Hollywood, CA)
Sunday June 15th 2014, 12:56 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Kristine F

That's why one should always, always ask your printer to let you proofread the final proof before it goes to the press.

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