Monday, October 16, 2006

Its a Sin, Its a Crime -- It's an Error!

Some errors, increasingly annoying today, are in fact old enough to have been recognized by Fowler.

Yes, that Fowler.

In his (Fowler's; pay attention!) Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, he devotes two pages to it, and well he should; our concern here is on page 303, with item number 4 of that topic:
4. The possessive of it, like that of who, & the absolute forms in -s of her, their, our, and your, has no apostrophe : its, hers, theirs, ours, yours, not it's &c.

Pretty succinct, I think -- and, to reward our loyal readers, particularly fellow admirers of H. W. Fowler, I offer A Guilty Pleasure at the end of this post.

(The 1965 second edition (ably revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers), contains a slightly briefer version on page 312 of Fowler's original entry.)

In both cases the brevity of the treatment leads one to believe that confusion between its and it's was occasional, not rampant. That situation no longer obtains, as witness R. W. Burchfield's treatment on page 422 in the Third (1996) edition of Fowler:
its, it's. Just a reminder that its is the possessive form of it (the cat licked its paws) and that it's is a shortened form of it is (It's raining again) or it has (It's come).

Note that the confusion itself now rates its own entry!

Now, how difficult can it be to avoid this error? The distinction is taught to very young children, yet otherwise literate adults fumble it every day -- and as we can see, all three editions of Fowler discuss it. What to do, what to do? How does one avoid this error?

Once again, we turn to the sources held at the Ceely's Modern Usage Library.

In Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, Patricia T. O'Conner explains it the way I generally do: "If you can substitute it is, use it's."

She also says, on page 39, "It, like he and she, is a pronoun -- a stand-in for a noun -- and pronouns don't have apostrophes when they're possessives: His coat is too loud because of its color, but hers is too mousy." We'll return to this business of possessive pronouns with apostrophes, because there is one. Do you know what it is?

(I didn't guess it, either, but I enjoyed the discovery anyway.)

Richard Lederer and Richard Dowris, in their delightful Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged, say the same thing:
Of course, possessive pronouns (his, hers, mine, ours, its, et al.) exist on their own and are not "formed" by apostrophes.
Lederer has nice words (on the back cover) for Nitty-Gritty Grammar: A Not-So-Serious Guide to Clear Communication by Edith H. Fine and Judith P. Josephson. They devote page 20 "Pronouns As Possessives (they list my, mine, our, ours, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, their, theirs, and whose; they're missing one). They also have a great little mnemonic at the bottom of the page:
TIP: Possessive its never splits.
Constance Hale gets serious in Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, in which she speaks of "the one truly unforgivable sin that haunts the use of pronouns:"
Possessive pronouns are all apostrophe-less: my, your, his, hers, its. Who's and it's are contractions of Who is and it is.

Learn this or die.
That's all there is, before we get to our little treat at the end (in a seasonally appropriate vein, it's also a bit of a trick). Keep two things in mind, one tip and one test:

1. The tip: Possessive its never splits, from Nitty-Gritty Grammar.

2. The test: Are you saying "It is?" If so, go ahead and use your apostrophe (Patricia T. O'Conner recommends this test, too, remember).

And now, Our Guilty Pleasure...disagreeing with the distinguished writers I've cited here. They all say that possessive pronouns aren't formed by apostrophes -- but that's not quite so (and I gave you a clue, above; did you spot it?).

Kingsley Amis, in The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage, has no entry for distinguishing it's from its. He does, though, have an entry for "Apostrophe," and on page 15 of the book we're directed to common errors, one of which is
(a) Putting in an apostrophe where none is needed, as with possessive pronouns such as its, ours, yours, theirs; though an apostrophe is required in one's.
I told you it was tricky, and if you knew that one already, then my compliments to you! And as I said above, I didn't guess this one, either. Well, British English does differ from the American, but not that much. I've used "one" and "one's" before, so I should have gotten it: but Richard Lederer and Constance Hale should have gotten it, too!