Tag, You’re I-t-s
On October 5, some ad for “GreenFleet” popped up alongside my Yahoo E-mail for the first time (probably not for the last), with the tag “Membership has it’s privileges. Learn more.”
Even if I were tempted to find out what the heck “GreenFleet” was, I would never click “Learn more” because of the glaring grammatical error that the GreenFleet copywriter committed in his/her come-on.
“Membership has it’s privileges”? Come on. You’d think that the most rudimentary grammar checker would have caught this one.
I believe we have spent some time on the issue of “its” and “it’s” before.
“Its” is a possessive pronoun, like “his” or “her” or “your” or “our.”
“It’s” is a contraction for “it is.”
Now, I know the reason why people confuse the two. They have some vague notion that a possessive takes an apostrophe-ess, like Eve’s bayou, Carlito’s way, Burke’s law, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula’s daughter, the Mummy’s hand or tomb or ghost or curse, Donovan’s brain, Gerald’s game, etc. (I got a million of ’em—although the apostrophe-ess isn’t only used for proper nouns but for all possessive nouns: cat’s paw, bat’s whisper, witch’s cauldron, childhood’s end, and so forth).
So these people apply this construction where it’s not needed (even though—I think—none of them would ever write “hi’s privileges”).
An easy rule-of-thumb for a writer is for him/her to stop and think, when writing i-t-s, if s/he is saying “it is” or not. If you can substitute “it is” for i-t-s, then you need to write the word as “it’s.” If not, then it’s “its.”
“Well, damn,” you say, “it’s English’s own fault for using the apostrophe to mean two different things—contraction and possession.” Yeah, well, maybe.
But, you see, my contention is that the possessive apostrophe had its start as contraction apostrophe. You know that, often, the apostrophe indicates a letter or letters that are missing from the contracted word: “didn’t” for “did not,” “you’ve” for “you have,” “o’clock” for “of the clock,” “’em” for “them,” and so forth. (That’s why you cannot indiscriminately use the apostrophe when you’re contracting the word “little.” It’s “li’l”—sorry, I can’t explain why there isn’t a second apostrophe after the second “l” to indicate the missing “e” the way that the first apostrophe stands in for “tt.” So all these rappers who call themselves “L’il” and “Lil’” and the like are spelling their own names wrong.)
Okay, then. Take a look at this line from Shakespeare:
“Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn / The living record of your memory.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 55, ll. 7-8)
Do you see how “Mars his” could easily become “Mars’s”—eliminating the “hi” from “his” to make a contraction? It’s a short step from there to using the apostrophe-ess in other situations. “Jove his thunderbolts” becomes “Jove’s thunderbolts,” “Apollo his chariot” becomes “Apollo’s chariot,” and so on. Before you know it, English speakers were applying the apostrophe-ess to show possession to things that belonged to people (and objects and concepts) that weren’t gods (like “war’s quick fire”).
You may say, “Oh, yeah—so what did they do—say ‘Juno his husband,’ which became ‘Juno’s husband,’ or ‘Diana his gown,’ which became ‘Diana’s gown?’”
What can I tell you? We have lived in a patriarchal society for a long time; it’s the males who fashioned most of the rules. So, yeah, I guess the “his” that got contracted to “’s” was used for females and for neutral objects, too.
Whatever the reason (because my explanation may be only tenuous and incorrect speculation), aren’t you glad that, in English, you have the ability to say “love’s book” besides “the book of love” or “God’s lamb” besides “the lamb of God,” etc.? People who speak other languages (like all those Romance-language speakers) don’t have that option.
So much for the digression. I know it may be counterintuitive, given my lengthy disquisition on apostrophe-ess, that “it’s” is not a possessive, but that’s because those possessive pronouns are an entirely different kettle of fish from other possessives.
And I don’t have to tell you that too many people stick in an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong, when they’re writing a plural. (Example: “He has too many skeleton’s in his closet to fit in a suit of clothe’s.”) Even some folks who know this error commit it when it comes to surnames. People have a tendency to want to write “the Smith’s” on their mailbox when they mean “the Smiths”—i.e., the entire Smith family, more than one Smith. (Similarly, it’s “the Smiths’ house”—a possessive plural—not “the Smith’s house,” unless only one guy named Smith, or one guy who forges horseshoes, lives there. But maybe we won’t get into possessive plurals for the time being.)
While we’re at it, we should perhaps make note of “lets” and “let’s,” another pair that some people confuse. “Lets” is a third-person singular verb: “The executioner lets us use his guillotine when he doesn’t need it for work.” “Let’s” is a contraction for “let us,” which is always used in the form of a suggestion: “So let’s use it to cut off Joey’s head.”
Long-time readers of this column (are there any?) may remember an early essay I penned about i-t-s. Back in the 1970s, a local radio station, WXYZ-Detroit, was running a contest in which people could win cash prizes. The station plastered billboards all around town advertising the fact that “WXYZ puts its’ listeners on the payroll.”
It got to the point where I could no longer take it, embarrassed by the glaring error in this statement (which I trust I don’t have to point out to you). I called the station and spoke to someone about it. I explained that the apostrophe after the “s” was superfluous, unneeded—that it made the sentence grammatically incorrect. The person I spoke with told me, “Well, we checked, and you can do it either way.” I was so flabbergasted by this response that I was speechless. I couldn’t think to say, “With whom did you check? Who gave you such a stupid answer”—so that was the end of the conversation.
My wife, who was teaching freshman composition at Wayne State University at the time, gave her students an assignment—to look at the billboards and determine the error. Some of them actually found it. One of them called the station to protest this absurd, incorrect usage of punctuation. She was told (less politely than I was told) that the station had decided to “come down to the level of its listeners.” (Maybe the person said “come down to the level of its’ listeners”—who can say, since the spokesperson didn’t deliver the reply in writing?)
I’m not sure what this story illustrates. Frustration for being exposed for the ignoramuses they were? Abashed recalcitrance which prevented them from owning up to their mistake? Nasty backlash at being found out? Reminds me too much of the willful ignorance that dismisses facts and makes a badge of honor out of stupidity and the refusal to learn/be corrected—a trait all too common in public life today.
Understanding Idiom So You Don’t Look Like an Idiot
Speaking of which—I already faulted whoever drafted that statement for First Lady Melania Trump about her and the President not coming to the Kennedy Center Awards at the end of the year, citing (among other things) the construction “well wishes” when it should have been “good wishes” or “best wishes.”
Now, sadly, I must point out another misuse of the language by the Commander in Chief, who tweeted, after the hurricane that ravaged Puerto Rico, that he sends the people there his “warmest condolences.”
Do I have to tell you that condolences can be deep or sincere but they can’t be warm? Would you wish someone your “heartiest” sympathy or your heartfelt sympathy? Might as well say, “I had a good time at the funeral.” A person in the public eye must learn to use the proper forms for the proper occasions, and “warmest condolences” just doesn’t cut it.
Thank you, and good day.
Anthony Ambrogio, firstname.lastname@example.org