The It’s/Its/Its’ Conundrum
Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more errors in two sound-alike words: the possessive pronoun “its” and the contraction for “it is.” Writers seem confused (or perhaps just too rushed?) about whether or not the three-letter word needs an apostrophe or not, and in some hard-to-forget instances, exactly where to place that apostrophe.
I say this because I have seen the apostrophe placed both before and after the “s” in what I assume is an attempt to punctuate the contraction for “it is.” But perhaps I am being too optimistic.
For those of you who have been around the Writing Center block, I recorded a podcast on this topic way back in 2011, so you might remember the nifty mnemonic I am going to share shortly. Regardless, the topic is worth revisiting because people keep making mistakes.
Why is that? Surely it’s not due to a lack of understanding of how to form the contraction for “it is,” right? Maybe the issue is not so much “its/it’s” in particular, but, rather, the apostrophe in general as forming possessives has been problematic since the first use of the letter “s.” Can we blame the problem on texting? Texting is, after all, the evil of all language evils, marking the end of civilized and complete-word discourse and reducing it to what amounts to what linguist Jonathan McWhorter terms “fingered speech.” Seriously, since the inception of texting, we have seen our language erode one letter at a time to the point where for some it can be as confounding as Egyptian hieroglyphics. Think about it. Complete phrases like “by the way” or “be right back” are now expressed with btw and brb. What’s next, the singular “they”?
Another thought is this: Why not do away with the apostrophe altogether. I am not kidding. Since our language is shrinking to abbreviations, why not reduce the number of marks of punctuation. Who needs the apostrophe? This would resolve the problem of where to place the apostrophe when forming the contraction for “it is” because I see the apostrophe both before the “s” and (gads!) after the “s” as in “i-t-s-apostrophe.” If the apostrophe were eliminated, no one would need to worry about where to place the mark. Think of all the frustration and aggravation eighth-grade English teachers would be spared just by expunging the apostrophe. Heck, we could even get rid of the letter “s” and use “z” in its stead. Perhaps I am being too extreme.
Here’s another solution: Learn and apply this mnemonic that someone taught me ages ago so I could remember whether to use and where to place the apostrophe when using “i-t-s” or “i-t-’-s.” Yes, I was at one time part of the problem. But now I offer a solution aptly titled “The Its/It’s Rhyme”:
An apostrophe makes two words one
(“it is” becomes it apostrophe “s”)
To make it possessive, you use none (“its”).
Nifty indeed! Who doesn’t like a catchy little rhyme, right? Of course, you need to know what a possessive is and when such a form is required, but that is a matter for another time.
Until next week–
Here’s the original podcast for those interested: