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In Wednesday’s post, I was complained about how the Daily Mail treated an obvious non-expert as an expert, writing an article that gave us her ill-informed opinions as though they somehow mattered. Now, having looked through the comments on that article, I’m compelled to do a bonus Friday post, because some of the comments are masterpieces of grammar ramblings. I’ve posted commentary below them, but really, they’re the stars of the show, and I’m just the nettling MC making the obvious joke.

A large number of students and adults can’t tell the difference between
their, there, they’re
It’s, its’, its,
loose, lose
– Batman, Newport, strange planet called ‘Earth’, 07/12/2010 14:43


Not to nitpick, but there is no such word as its’
– Natalie, Durham, 7/12/2010 17:01
Yes there is! Educate yourself THEN comment….
– marie, athens, 7/12/2010 7:54

Is there anything more marvelous than a snotty remark from someone who is wrong? And again, its’?

Not sure why you’ve been red arrowed when it’s totally true. ‘Asian talk’ such as “innit” and “bro” has become part of the day-to-day language.
Get on a bus in London and I doubt you’ll hear a single English voice.
Act fast now and cut immigration – if you go in a shop and hear them speaking in foreign remind them what country they live in!!!

My dear British National Party friend, bro is American talk, and we’ll thank you to cite us appropriately. Also, “speaking in foreign”? C’mon.

How about the very latest, infuriating beauty? Question: ‘Have you got a girl-friend?’
Answer: ‘Yes I do’. I long to witness such an exchange on TV and hear the interviewer ask ‘Yes, you do what?’ The answer will, of course, be ‘Yes, I do have a girl-friend’. The learned interviewer will then humiliate the ignoramus – for the benefit of all – with ‘Do you mean “Yes, I have”?

If you’ll excuse some longer commentary, no, the interviewee doesn’t mean that. The interviewee is using verb phrase ellipsis. VP ellipsis is where a verb phrase would be repeated but is instead left out or replaced with an appropriate auxiliary. The auxiliary is based on the tense of the VP being replaced, so you’d use do in the present tense, will in the future, did in the past, and so on. This kind of ellipsis replaces the verb and its objects. If the verb isn’t replaced, then the objects have to stick around, too*. In response to “Did you eat the fish yet?” one can say “Yes, I did” or “Yes, I ate it”, but “Yes, I ate” is distinctly strange to say here. So too with the “Have you got a girlfriend?” question; “Yes, I do” or “Yes, I have a girlfriend”, or even “Yes, I have one” would be standard. But “Yes, I have” would only be a standard response if the question were “Have you had a girlfriend?”.

It is noticible how poor grammar is now quite normal amongst the younger generations. You only have to look at the standard from the articles written on here & other media. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are graduates they are employing. Also the media has made a big effort to move away from those who speak the queens english or proper english. Instead they push regional accents where possible. Where they have their own dialect. Like some say “us” instead of “me”. Unless children are avid book readers, they will pick up poor grammar from the internet, media etc. The problem is we have let standards slip. I know a few students who are wanting to go into teaching, because it is so much easier to get on courses. I would not want them teaching my children, they seem,undisciplined ignorant of history & basic facts. Have been brought up on a shallow celeb culture. They have poor grammar & would be passing this on to future pupils. We need to stop the cycle of this now.

If you’re serious in your concerns about bad grammar on the Internet, might I suggest you not post anymore?

*: In some cases you can elide only the object, but these are generally in cases where the verb is being specifically focused on, i.e., He didn’t think I saw it, but I saw. They also, at least to me, sound generally awkward unless they are delivered angrily, in which case grammatical awkwardness is the least of one’s concerns.

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.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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