Monday, July 05, 2010

Why Is This Simple Grammar Rule SO Difficult?

I've started keeping a collection of writers (blog commentors, etc.) who misuse the word "it's" (contraction for "it is"), instead of its (possessive), here are seven examples from just the last several weeks:

1. Shale gas has it's skeptics: they're hesitant about it's prospects based on economics and environmental factors. I don't work in the shale gas industry and therefore don't feel qualified to forecast it's long-term prospect.

2. If oil was so rare in the US, then why is 95% of it's land and water off limits to drilling?

3. My point is that the OECD index uses stock market levels as an input to derive it's levels.

4. Tithing has lost it's promise

5. I suspect my laptop is having trouble keeping up because of it’s GB’s and MB’s.

6. And while you’re at it, do the same with “Price Theory and It’s Applications”

7. I despise Walmart, not for it's anti-union stance, but for it's overall philosophy and what it's done to it's supply base. 

Maybe I'm just a complete supercilious grammar snob, but why do SO many seemingly intelligent people have SO much trouble with a basic grammar rule that is SO simple?  If you didn't learn about this rule in "grammar school," perhaps a simple five-minute remedial review is in order, you can start here


At 7/05/2010 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Other errors that "bug" me:

On retail store signage: .99 followed by a cents sign.

In Real Estate ads: in the $300's trying to indicate a price over $300,000.

Historical: from the 50's instead of from the '50s.

At 7/05/2010 1:54 PM, Anonymous scp said...

I have to be real careful with those.... I have trouble with "you're" and "your" too. I suspect it has to do with how we think. Those who think by "visualizing" get it right reflexively. Those of us who "hear" our thoughts have to be more careful with words that sound alike.

At 7/05/2010 2:59 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Grammar is important. Its place in society keeps us from anarchy. It's the single most important issue. I did these two sentences to illustrate the proper usage.

At 7/05/2010 3:00 PM, Anonymous John S said...

Proper grammar has it's merits.

At 7/05/2010 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like it...very scientific and politically sound grammar rules, maybe a new trend for blogging. However, me is bad with grammar so me don't know if me could continue you're trend.

At 7/05/2010 4:01 PM, Anonymous Alan Gunn said...

Strictly speaking, this isn't a rule of grammar, it's a rule of punctuation. Lately, I've seen apostrophes creeping into other possessive pronouns, too: "your's," "her's," even hi's."

We'd probably be better off if we just scrapped apostrophes altogether.

At 7/05/2010 4:11 PM, Anonymous MathGuy said...


It's not being a grammar snob at all.

I completely agree because this is basic stuff that virtually everyone who speaks English as a native language really ought to know.

The difference between "it's" and "its" really should have been mastered before entering high school.

Let me please add one more thing, which is probably legitimate grammar snobbery.

The second sentence should read:

"If oil were so rare in the US"

"was" should be "were"

I know the subjunctive is almost extinct in the English language, but I cringe when I hear people say this kind of thing!

At 7/05/2010 4:49 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Ok you got of those quotes are mine. I do know the difference. As a quick check, I discovered my iPad autocorrect automatically places the apostrophes. Then came the real escape point, poor error proofing. Score one for Dr. Perry.

In my defense, English is my primary language. ;)

At 7/05/2010 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My opinion of Obama & his so-called intelligence plummeted the first time I heard him speak. His use of "I" as an object and "me" as a subject would probably have resulted in his flunking 4th grade in the '50s. "An" wasn't part of his vocabulary - or he just didn't know the difference between a vowel & a consonant.

At 7/05/2010 5:30 PM, Anonymous It's-its Police said...

John S said...

"Proper grammar has it's merits."


At 7/05/2010 5:39 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

"My opinion of Obama & his so-called intelligence plummeted the first time I heard him speak. His use of "I" as an object and "me" as a subject would probably have resulted in his flunking 4th grade in the '50s. "An" wasn't part of his vocabulary - or he just didn't know the difference between a vowel & a consonant."

Well Geez, Anon, you're right, of course, but if this was his only failing I'd be happy to let it slide. :-)

Besides, I have a feeling he does this intentionally so as not to embarrass his predecessor who sometimes had similar problems.

At 7/05/2010 5:49 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Actually I'm pretty comfortable IT'S and ITS, in fact I'm OK with apostrophe's in general. I'm fearing the lesson on colons & semi-colons.

I hope the Prof doesn't start rejecting comments for grammatical and punctuation errors, or these threads could become really short.

At 7/05/2010 5:57 PM, Anonymous Benny The Ham said...

Its a crying shame, when a dog chases its tail, and never gets any closer to it's tail.

At 7/05/2010 9:13 PM, Blogger Bruce Hall said...

We be just to busy to worry 'bout that.

At 7/05/2010 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't get me started... OK, where do I begin?

First - Jason: a craftsman NEVER blames his tools. Poor iPad. There, there.

My huge beef re: this general subject is the usage of 'less' and 'few'. It must be the sign of a simple (and insecure?) mind to follow the dumbed-down fashion of the day to expel phrases like "there was less people there tonight..." when a quantifiable subject, like the size of a crowd, should be summarized as "...few or fewer people..."

People: use the higher functions of your mind! Practice better grammar so that the rest of us can see your point AND appreciate that fine brain which the good Lord engineered for you. Please!

At 7/05/2010 9:52 PM, Anonymous matt b said...

My personal dis-favourite (note: correct NZ spelling of that word) is mis-use of 'effect' and 'affect'. I barely know the definitions of each word, but when it is mis-used, which is frequently, I just know it's (aha) wrong and it irks me.

I was an its/it's mis-user until 5 years ago when I took the 1 minute required to figure out which is which.

At 7/05/2010 10:02 PM, Blogger pkd said...

I find it annoying, too, but in they're defense sometimes people just aren't paying attention. Sometimes while proofing my own sentences, I see I've written "their" instead of "they're".

At 7/05/2010 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The St. Paul Pioneer Press has a column named The Bulletin Board which has frequent dispatches from the "Apostrophe Redistribution Center" where all such apostrophe misuse can be reported.

The ARC is dedicated to helping people use apostrophes properly and in fact now has a surplus of pre-owned, misplaced apostrophes. Right now, persons needing apostrophes for proper placement in text missing one or more, can get them free upon request from the ARC.

Perhaps the issue with apostrophes and it's/its may be that writers tend to get very possessive about contractions or is it perhaps they have contracted their possessions?

At 7/06/2010 2:17 AM, Blogger DARG said...

it's = it is
its = possessive.

I pause about 2 seconds whenever I have to write those words.

At 7/06/2010 2:54 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...


Do you think this error - and other spelling and punctuation errors - are due to lack of knowledge? Or is it simply carelessness? I tend to make obvious errors because my fingers cannot keep up with my mind. When I'm typing an email to 100 or 1,000 coworkers, I proofread it carefully. But when I type a blog comment, I'm rarely careful.

Over at Cafe Hayek, I can edit my comments and correct errors after posting them. I can't do that here.

At 7/06/2010 3:33 AM, Blogger PeakTrader said...


At 7/06/2010 7:51 AM, Blogger Josh said...

Its ridiculous.

At 7/06/2010 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'd call it a simple rule. It is an exception to the rule, so to speak. Nevertheless, for people who make a living writing I would expect them to have this one down pat.

At 7/06/2010 9:06 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

It's ironic that you have a run-on sentence in your own post complaining about poor grammar.

At 7/06/2010 9:39 AM, Anonymous morganovich said...

i can only speak for myself, but it's a mistake i only make when typing. i'm not really sure why. it just seems to flow out as a typo. i often notice later that i have done it and know that it's wrong, but cannot say why i typed it that way. it just seems to happen. perhaps it's just an issue of trying to type too quickly and relying upon spellcheck to catch typos, which, of course, doesn't work if you have typed a real word.

the one that kills me is "myself".

i see lines such as "please don't hesitate to contact john or myself if you would like more information" in business correspondence. it's ridiculous.

At 7/06/2010 9:58 AM, Blogger RaplhCramden said...

OK Dinosaurs. The rules of grammar arise from DESCRIBING how people did things IN THE PAST. It makes as much sense to ascribe a should and shouldn't to the usage of its and it's as it does to ascribe a should and shouldn't as to whether to use vacuum tubes in an amplifier.

The overwhelming fact you should all account for is: there is effectively no loss of understanding in sentences using its and it's whether it is used "correctly," (i.e. as grammarians say it should be) or "incorrectly." What is the point of a distinction without a distinction?

Y'all can sit around and stare at its and it's while LOL, BRB, :), c u soon, etc. enter the language in the natural way: from people actually using the language.

Enjoy your atavism and the false sense of superiority and false sense of an ordered universe which it gives you. Everybody needs a hobby.

At 7/06/2010 9:58 AM, Blogger gator80 said...


One of those quotes is mine.

At 7/06/2010 11:09 AM, Blogger QT said...

One notes that you have mentioned this particular grammatical infraction on more than one occasion to little avail. It seems few people embrace critical comments no matter how minor in nature the fault.

A possible solution to this dilemma may lie in creating incentives to reward excellence and eloquence. Featuring notable posts as blog entries to recognize excellence in writing is another way to promote excellence in grammar.

One of the best writers on the subject of grammar was the late William Saffire. It's hard not to enjoy Saffire's wit and eloquence....a far cry from the tedious grammar lessons we all remember from our youth.

At 7/06/2010 11:56 AM, Anonymous rg said...

As a foreigner to English I always need to think about it.

I believe here is a major reason

I like Mark's (possessive) blog because it's (not possessive) good.

So much for consistency in the English language


At 7/06/2010 12:23 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

PeakTrader said...


A+ 100%

I'm not an expert, but your comment appears to be error free!

At 7/06/2010 12:33 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

morganovich said...

"i see lines such as "please don't hesitate to contact john or myself if you would like more information" in business correspondence. it's ridiculous."

In most cases you would be correct, but I believe that "myself" is the co-owner of J&M Enterprises, so that sentence may be correct.

At 7/06/2010 12:44 PM, Anonymous Hydra said...

Retail store sign.

"New, longer hours"

At 7/07/2010 12:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is that "it" replaces the noun, and most nouns show possession by including 's after the noun, such as "Walmart's anti-union stance", so it makes logical sense that the possessive of "it" would follow the same structure of just adding 's.

I've long used "it's" as possessive because it made rational sense, but I loathe people who mix-up "lose" and "loose" because that demonstrates an inferior memory.

At 7/07/2010 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I've long used "it's" as possessive because it made rational sense"


Anyone who cannot figure out the difference between it's and its does not know the basic structure of the English language. One is a subject and verb contracted while the other is a pronoun

If you can replace its/it's with her or his then no apostrophe.

If you can replace it's / its with "it is" then you use it's

At 7/07/2010 9:20 AM, Blogger DARG said...

Lol. I think this is your most commented post.

Let me repeat:

it's = it is
its = possessive.

At 7/07/2010 9:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The easiest way to remember its is a possessive its to think of its cohorts - his, hers, ours, etc.

At 7/08/2010 3:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark, you should give us a different grammar lesson once a week. I always like to touch up on my skills.


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