Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Semi-Annual Grammar/Punctuation/Spelling Rant: Why Is This Simple Grammar Rule SO Difficult?

Please indulge me in my semi-annual supercilious grammar - punctuation - spelling rant. Here's some background, here's the rule, and here are some recent examples below from CD comments of the misuse of "it's" for "its."  Excuse my snobbish confusion, but I still can't figure how or why such a simple rule (from about the third grade maybe?) gives so many intelligent people so much trouble?  "It's" is a contraction for "it is" and if you can't substitute "it is" for "it's" you should be using "its" (possessive) and not "it's."

1. You simply list every evil regime you can think of and then credit it's existence and it's crimes to the U.S.

2. The fact that the US imports most of it's oil from Canada and not the Saudis is irrelevant.

3. The age of the US truck fleet is at it's highest level since the interstate highway system.

4. That was were I was headed with my question about government and it's role.

5. That is natural law in it's pure form.

6. If you took the whole earth and broke it up into piles of it's constituent components....

7. Any state that wants to operate it's own system with it's own rules can do so including their own version of block grants.

Suggestion: Spend just five minutes thinking about this rule, and you'll know it and "own it" for life, and the misuse of it's will "stand out like a sore thumb" when you see it in print.

Comments welcome.

50 Comments:

At 6/28/2011 9:39 AM, Blogger Hydra said...

It's wrong to be possesive.

 
At 6/28/2011 9:47 AM, Blogger Sean said...

What drives me nuts is seeing grammatical errors all over the place... and then finding them creeping into my own writing much the way a local accent might creep into my speech. In order to avoid such dumb errors I often have to review my own writing, and often do not make the time to do so.
I suspect the situation is similar with others: a little time spent in review before posting would clear these up.

 
At 6/28/2011 9:52 AM, Blogger Bill said...

It's not just it's/its. Misuse of homonyms, in general, is widespread.

 
At 6/28/2011 10:00 AM, Blogger geoih said...

There are no apostrophes when speaking. Grammar for speaking is instinctive, but not for writing. Writing is technology. It has to be learned, like any other technology. Also, the grammar of a language is not something set in stone, but is constantly evolving.

 
At 6/28/2011 10:18 AM, Blogger Ironman said...

The confusion between the correct form is likely driven by frequency of use - "it's" is used about 65% of the time (do a Google search on "it's" - you'll get 11,110,000,000 results), while "its" is used about 35% of the time (6,020,000,000 results). Since "it's" would then appear to be correct form for nearly 2 out of every 3 uses, I suspect most people will have "it's" as their default spelling.

Now for the real question: would you say that people who confuse the two are "loosers"?

 
At 6/28/2011 10:24 AM, Blogger Jason said...

Yea, number 4 is supposed to be "where" not "were."

 
At 6/28/2011 10:32 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

' abuse is widespread in the U.S. and it's use should be noted and corrected.

OK, I will abide with its proper use because it's correct written communication.

 
At 6/28/2011 10:36 AM, Blogger The High Priest said...

Those aren't as bad as this glaring error on the Chicago Half Marathon webpage (www.chicagohalfmarathon.com):


We Make You're Weekends Better!

 
At 6/28/2011 10:38 AM, Blogger Hans said...

Your Honor, I plead guilty to all charges!

It's all my fault..

I will not nor can not, engage in any form of word contraction....

Since will not can't be contracted, it is clear to all, that discrimination and bias has been introduced into the English Language

By official decree, all grammar contraction has now been ban!

 
At 6/28/2011 10:38 AM, Blogger morganovich said...

it's a funny mistake. for some reason i find that i only make it when i type. it's not a mistake i'd ever make in handwriting.

the one that kills me is less vs fewer.

 
At 6/28/2011 10:43 AM, Blogger morganovich said...

"Spend just five minutes thinking about this rule, and you'll know it and "own it" for life, and the misuse of it's will "stand out like a sore thumb" when you see it in print."

it's not that we don't know the rule. i know the rule well.

it's just that while typing, you do not stop to think, it's sort of automatic. you don't really think about the word you are typing, it just happens.

i think ironman's point is a valid one. you use the contraction more than the possessive, so it's instinctive to type that way especially as most possessives use an apostrophe.

i know that i screw this up all the time. i always know it's wrong when i see it, but you just don't notice it when you are typing and i don't really proof comments.

 
At 6/28/2011 11:25 AM, Blogger Larry G said...

geeze.. I was feeling all virtuous for spell checking my stuff and now Perry gets his butt in an uproar about something else...

I have a good excuse anyhow.

I'm the product of Marine Corp Career that got me moved around every couple of years - back when the schools had even less standardized curricula and I left one school just before they covered the its and arrived at the next right after they covered it and it never got fixed.....

so take your choice.

either I spell check or I grammar check. what would you prefer?

 
At 6/28/2011 11:52 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Just for fun, I took an American History class online a couple of years ago...since all discussion had to be written, I got a glimpse of our future writing skills. lets jest say thay rnt gr8. Honestly, I had a hard time understanding what they were trying to say.

MP, I have a feeling this pet peeve will seem downright cute in another few years.

 
At 6/28/2011 12:14 PM, Blogger Tom said...

The one I hate is the use of "then" for "than", e.g., "more right then wrong".

 
At 6/28/2011 12:47 PM, Blogger Doug said...

If something belongs to the dog, it's the dog's item. If we call the dog "it" sometimes, then it seems proper to say "that is it's item", with the apostrophe s as possessive. However since there is already a contraction for "it's" meaning "it is", it creates confusion in writing, but not really. I think through context both uses of "it's" can be understood. I think "loose" vs "lose" displays a lower mindset, while "it's" vs "its" has good logic for mistaking, even if I don't think it's a mistake to use the apostrophe for possessive.

 
At 6/28/2011 12:50 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

Sign seen outside the RNC national headquarters: "Closed Sunday's"

Is our children learning?

 
At 6/28/2011 1:04 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Most people know the rule but when they type their brain chooses the wrong key strokes.

 
At 6/28/2011 1:20 PM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

morganovich: "it's just that while typing, you do not stop to think"

I agree. Many other grammatical errors result from not having the time to proofread.

Personally, I'd rather commit minor grammatical errors than spend precious minutes editing and re-editing my blog comments.

Of course, if Mark starts rejecting my blog comments because he finds my grammar offensive, then perhaps I'll pay more attention.

 
At 6/28/2011 1:28 PM, Blogger C. Blondell said...

I learned this from you a few years back when I took one of your MBA courses, and have never forgot. I correct people on a regular basis, and definitely see it everywhere!

 
At 6/28/2011 1:37 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

Academically, Professor Perry, your correct, of course--I know you're :)

If you look at audience and purpose, though, you want to communicate a written coded message that can be similarly mentally decoded by the reader. I think either “it's” or “its” will do for a general message.

Most non academic readers don’t like to be corrected when they make grammar mistakes such as these, and some will even slap you for mentioning them. I used to get slapped a lot, but only twice so far today.

Don't make this type of grammar mistake on an entrance essay exam to college because you will get flagged for remedial English instead of freshman English (it is considered a higher order concern (HOC) in essay-reader lingo). Too many HOCs written on your essay can even keep you out of college.

 
At 6/28/2011 1:51 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

c. Blondel,

You have two run-on sentences in the two sentences of your post. You are batting 0% :)

You need to include the subject 'I" after the comma and "and" to use the comma. You always need a subject, verb, and object in a complete sentence (but not necessarily in that order). Am I going to get slapped now?

 
At 6/28/2011 2:01 PM, Blogger CBI said...

I think that in comments and other quickly-written stuff, many of the "its" v. "it's" mistakes are just typographical errors: things that would normally get caught on proofreading. This depends upon the writer, of course.
Where I find it less forgivable is in professional publications or -- I kid you not -- public school marquee signs. (In one case, it was up there for a whole week.)
They and their students are the true losers. (Or loosers with their grammar teaching. :-) )

 
At 6/28/2011 2:01 PM, Blogger Regan said...

I can't help myself sometimes. When someone posts a flyer at work I will correct the grammar. I see stuff like this too often: "Contact Diane in HR if your going to participate in next week's blood drive."

I also hate when people confuse objective/subjective cases. I have a friend who thinks that "you and me" is always incorrect so he always uses "you and I" even in the object. I know it seems petty but it really can get me worked up. He might say something like, "Are you going to the concert with Mike and I?" He's my friend but sometimes I could slap him.

 
At 6/28/2011 2:05 PM, Blogger Methinks said...

I know that rule well. I hate seeing it violated as much as I hate seeing "lose" spelled "loose" or "their" in place of "there".

I don't proof comments the way I proof other pieces that I write - ones that I and others care way more about - so, those typos (except for "loose") have shown up in my own comments and I cringe with horror every time I see them.

 
At 6/28/2011 2:14 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

"Of course, if Mark starts rejecting my blog comments because he finds my grammar offensive, then perhaps I'll pay more attention."

a classic example of price influencing behavior of actors.

would make for an interesting experiment.

 
At 6/28/2011 2:30 PM, Blogger Rufus II said...

Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) has cut its income taxes by $7 billion since 2005 by booking roughly half its worldwide profits at a subsidiary at the foot of the Swiss Alps that employs about 100 people.


Cisco’s techniques cut the effective tax rate on its reported international income to about 5 percent since 2008 by moving profits from roughly $20 billion in annual global sales through the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bermuda, according to its records in four countries.


Bloomberg

 
At 6/28/2011 2:31 PM, Blogger Rufus II said...

Oops, sorry, wrong thread.

 
At 6/28/2011 5:16 PM, Blogger Craig said...

Though "its" vs. "it's" is a widespread problem, it's the misuse of "me" and "I" that is unforgivable. I cringe whenever I hear some supposedly-educated person say something along the lines of, "He joined she and I for dinner".

Ugh. It's a result of trying to teach English by patterns instead of analyzing the syntax. Fewer and fewer people understand what a direct object, indirect object or object of a preposition are.

I do get a certain delight in knowing that above supposedly-educated person really isn't, though.

 
At 6/28/2011 6:39 PM, Blogger Stone Glasgow said...

Even Don at Cafe Hayek makes this error sometimes, but commenters claiming that they can't be bothered to think about their writing are ridiculous. It quickly becomes second-nature, and failing implies a sloppy personality that can't be bothered to perform simple tasks, like closing kitchen cabinets or finding a trash can when finished with a tissue.

I find it difficult to respect people who find that it is too difficult to consider reading what they have written before posting.

 
At 6/28/2011 10:16 PM, Blogger Nicolas Martin said...

It is a distinction without importance, and what you think is a common misuse may simply be a triviality becoming an archaism.

Is it not possible to understand the context of "its" no matter which way it is employed? There is no confusion to be found.

When should English grammar rules have been declared correct and frozen for posterity? 1650? 1927? Now?

 
At 6/28/2011 10:24 PM, Blogger Mark J. Perry said...

"Sloppy writing/grammar/punctuation reflects sloppy thinking."

If "it's vs. its" was a complicated or esoteric rule I would understand "it's" unimportance, but "its" just a simple, basic rule of punctuation that any 5th grader knows.

Is simple grammar too much to expect from educated adults, or is "sloppiness" in writing and thinking now accepted?

 
At 6/29/2011 2:16 AM, Blogger Drew said...

It follows the same rule of all possessive pronouns.

"His", "hers", "theirs", "yours", and "ours" don't have apostrophes.

Just like "its".

 
At 6/29/2011 6:16 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

"Is simple grammar too much to expect from educated adults, or is "sloppiness" in writing and thinking now accepted?"

I think that statement is a bifurcation fallacy. Writing is simply another form of communication to convey a message from one person to another person, so my answer is neither of the two choices you gave. Your "sloppy" is someone else's "you mean you did not understand what I was writing"? That’s usually right before or right after you get slapped.

How do you differentiate between "it's" and "its" when you speak? So, if you put the written words in the context of the sentence just as you do in the spoken sentence, you know what "its" or "it's" means. If the sentence does not have any context, it is rather useless anyhow. Personally, I like to attempt to write grammatically correct because other people are watching; however, I am much more interested in the content of the message than the delivery.

If you really want to write educated prose, you probably should not be using contractions in the first place—root cause corrected—problem solved.

 
At 6/29/2011 6:25 AM, Blogger Larry G said...

there's the technical issue of writing and then there's the issue of communicating and articulating.

Language has lots of ways for people to get their point across even if it does not meet the "official" technical specs.

I'm not advocating tossing out the rules but pointing out the the "rules" seem to always be behind the evolution of how we communicate.

I give as an example - how long it takes to get a new word in the "official" dictionaries when that word has often been in common use and universally understood for years so Urban Dictionaries had to be created just to acknowledge the realities of the current language.

At some point.. some of this stuff.. EVENTUALLY reaches a point that even in the "official" dictionaries - they have to use phrase like "in common use" or even "archaic".

 
At 6/29/2011 8:43 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

Shame on the guys who decades ago procreated with anal-retentive English teachers, thus burdening the rest of us with today's condescending grammarians.

 
At 6/29/2011 8:47 AM, Blogger Dad said...

"It's is not, it isn't ain't, and it's it's, not its, if you mean it is. If you don't, it's its.
Then too, it's hers. It isn't her's. It isn't our's either. It's ours, and likewise yours and theirs."

 
At 6/29/2011 8:49 AM, Blogger Larry G said...

is there a connection between anal-retentive behaviors and economic philosophies and "purity"?

....hunkering down...here.....

 
At 6/29/2011 10:05 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Another common punctuation (not "grammar") error is the use of singular possessives when the plural is meant, as in "the Democrat's proposal" when you don't mean a proposal by just one Democrat. I've seen this even in books, which used to be copy edited but now, apparently, aren't. I've also seen apostrophe's used to break up a person's name, which is just silly, as when somebody writes "Roger's" as the possessive of "Rogers."

At the same time, there are countless complaints about grammatical errors that aren't errors at all. My supermarket used to have signs saying "12 items or less." Nothing wrong with that. But, in an excess of pedantry, they now say "fewer." There are occasions when "fewer" is right and "less" is wrong, but "12 items or less" isn't one of them. (Consider: "Do you have 12 items? No, I have less than that.")

 
At 6/29/2011 10:07 AM, Blogger Alan said...

In the last comment, "apostrophes" should not have had an apostrophe. This is an illustration of Muphry's law.

 
At 6/29/2011 12:07 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

"Consider: "Do you have 12 items? No, I have less than that."

There's no ambiguity of a countable noun when you have a number in front of the noun, is there? So it's technically/grammatically fewer.

 
At 6/29/2011 1:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

Walt: How about this? Q: "Do you have a million dollars?" A: No, I have (a) less (b) fewer than that.

Suppose I don't know how many items I have. But I know it's (a) less (b) fewer that 12.

Merriam-Webster's "English Usage" has a good discussion of this. The "can you count it?" test is an over-simplification.

 
At 6/29/2011 3:23 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

alan,

Dollars are still countable even if you don't know how many you have (I wish I had that problem!). So, it would be I have fewer dollars than you have. If you did not know how many dollars you have in relation to me, you could use neither fewer or less.

Different style sheets have different definitions, but many use the count and mass noun methodology. You can use whatever method you want as long as you can clearly communicate your message. I would not sweat this one.

 
At 6/29/2011 4:47 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

I hate the grammar police. They get on some trivial error that someone has made in haste while they ignore the very serious errors in logic that are material to the argument.

 
At 6/29/2011 7:32 PM, Blogger t.j. said...

Oh dear, I've read plenty of typos on CARPE DIEM. Should I start posting comments to correct them all?

 
At 6/29/2011 11:34 PM, Blogger Auntie Ann said...

I used to run a creative writing website, and I think this was the number-one mistake. It's such an easy thing to get right; I don't understand why it seems so hard for people to get.

 
At 6/30/2011 1:06 AM, Blogger Ian Random said...

The sad part of the Internet, is that there are even grammatical errors I can spot and I am no grammarian.

 
At 6/30/2011 8:19 AM, Blogger misterjosh said...

Did you censor my comment correcting your spelling of "snobbish", or did it just not come through?

 
At 6/30/2011 12:50 PM, Blogger Jag100 said...

I am a stickler for spelling and punctuation, but never could snap to this rule. Finally a technical writer we had hired to do a company brochure explained it to me. It took all of 10 seconds. Now I own it and can look down my nose at those that don't.

 
At 6/30/2011 1:21 PM, Blogger Regan said...

@Alan

Walt is correct. If the limit in the grocery line is 15 items and you have 14--you have fewer items.

The only exceptions to the rule that I know of are when you are talking about time, money, or distance. The exceptions only come into play when you are not talking about specific units of time, money, or distance. e.g. The concert lasted less than three hours. Steve worked fewer hours than I did so he couldn't afford to go.

 
At 6/30/2011 4:23 PM, Blogger Michael said...

When you say, "the misuse of it's will 'stand out like a sore thumb' when you see it in print," should we think it will not in fact stand out, or that it will stand out like something other than a thumb? You probably just got used to putting quotes around everything in your rant, but you look silly making any mistakes at all in this kind of post.

 

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