Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Its Apostrophe: It's Not As Simple As It Used To Be

I learned when to put an apostrophe between the tee and the ess in its from Mrs. Stiffler in the Ninth Grade. The apostrophe is used with it to indicate the missing letter and space from “it is,” but not to indicate possession. This made sense to my tiny fourteen year-old mind. The rule reduced ambiguity, and seemed to indicate a hierarchy in which the contraction counted for more than possession.

Little did I know that it would make me gnash my teeth, as a working grownup, to see the rule casually flouted by e-mailing co-workers.

I know how it’s done. You can prove I’m right by scanning for its and it’s in edited copy. Here are two sentences from R. Fiore’s article about The Simpsons television show, The Glory that Was the Simpsons, in the Winter, 2004 Comics Journal.

“Because it had a satirical bent and lots of minutes to fill, its concerns of necessity became wideranging; developing into a comprehensive picture of its times.” (Its indicates possession -- and I would have punctuated the sentence differently.)

“The problem is that because it’s easy and imposes little up-front cost to the viewer, it causes more difficult and expensive cultural forms to atrophy.” (It’s is a contraction of “it -- meaning television -- is.”)

It’s interesting that I would get upset about such a small thing. I’m fairly easy-going about spelling. If you’re in the ballpark, great. I know spellings have changed over the centuries, America, Great Britain, and Australia currently spell some words differently, and a lot of English spellings don’t make sense anyway, except as indicators of source languages. (Another reason for my being laissez faire about spelling may be that I have a family name which is not usually spelled are-oh-ay-are-kay. I may have given up.)

I’m comfortable with -- at least -- archaic grammar, having once cultivated a hick persona who said things like “ain’t got,” and “that don’t scare him, none.”

I think my being a grammar nazi about its/it’s (and your/you’re -- although I have written yer for both) probably comes from some mild obsessive compulsive disorder. I correct as I type, not being able to let an error stand until I get to the end of a sentence, let alone until I finish the draft. Still, its and it’s have two entirely different meanings. You wouldn’t write “I rote my mother a letter.” Well, maybe James Joyce would have. Its is possessive -- a modifier, and it’s is a contraction for "it is" -- subject and verb.

Then I read this poem by that old Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson.

The Brain, within it’s Groove

The Brain within it’s groove
Runs evenly -- and true --
But let a Splinter swerve --
Twere easier for You --

To put a Current back --
When Floods have slit the Hills --
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves --
And trodden out the Mills --

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