Lest anyone think that it’s only since the invention of texting or the Internet that people confuse it’s and its, I just wanted to offer some evidence that it’s not. It comes in the form of an old TV idiom, the spinning newspaper:


This mistake graces the first few seconds of the music video for John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song”, which I hadn’t heard before last week but now have become completely infatuated with. The spinning newspaper editor, no doubt a bit addled from typesetting on a rotating headline, put in an apostrophe that doesn’t belong, using it’s when its is called for! (It’s also arguable that there ought to be an apostrophe after the s in workers, but I don’t find that strictly necessary because Mine Workers Strike could be a complex compound noun in the context of a headline.)

Here we’ve got an example of the its-it’s mistake from 1984, when the Internet was still ARPANET, and texting and instant messaging were unheard of, so it seems unfair to blame the modern state of it(‘)s confusion simply on the profusion of quick electronic communication. But, you might argue, weren’t there beepers and pagers around then? Couldn’t they, as stepping-stones toward full-blown texting, have laid the seeds of apostrophal destruction that are now bearing fruit? I don’t know, because Wikipedia didn’t make it obvious to me when the first pager became available in the commercial market, and information that’s not in Wikipedia isn’t really worth knowing. Maybe John Mellencamp’s 1984 newspaper gaffe was already due to the insidious influence of digital communication. But turns out that it actually goes even farther back, to the very inception of possessive its in the sixteenth century.

Of course, no one should be surprised that its-it’s confusion should predate modern speedy communication.  As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, it(‘)s first appeared in the sixteenth century as the combination of it and the genitive case marker ‘s, and it was “at first commonly written it’s“.  According to the OED, this spelling died out in the early nineteenth century, although Google Books reveals that attestations of possessive it’s continue from that point through to the modern day, albeit less commonly than in its heady early days.  Somewhere along the line, possessive it’s began to be regarded as the dispreferred form, and then later the grammatically incorrect form.

[Drifting off-topic, I loved the old archetypes that the kid adopts in the video: the miner with the head-mounted lamp, the butcher with the traditional apron/bowtie combo, the farmer dressed in flannel and overalls. They reminded me of the noble images of the workingman that I was raised with, the images I had as a child of millhunks and Rosie the Riveters, who worked in mines and mills and factories and returned home grimy and greasy and scarred. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m part of the last generation for whom these images aren’t terribly outdated. Or perhaps they’re out of date even within my generation; when I mentioned this idea to my girlfriend, she was surprised to learn that there were still operating mines in the U.S. Has a new modern image of the little guy displaced these old archetypes? Or have we lost a part of our collective soul with nothing to fill its void? And if I’m this nostalgic now, what will happen when I actually reach an age when nostalgia is justifiable?]

Summary: Don’t be too surprised that people use it’s when they ought to use itsit’s used to be the correct form, and it never completely died out, even after its became the grammatically correct choice for possession.