Common Errors in English Usage 2nd Edition: It’s a book that deserves its reputation

I was asked recently to name three common errors in English that everyone should learn to avoid. This is an invitation to expound (in a quite bloated way, preferably) and pass judgment and arbitrarily assign extreme importance to things that ultimately could never be ranked in any way. In other words, it was an invitation I could never decline, and it actually wasn’t that hard to think of the three: “its” and “it’s.”

Well, OK, on its face, that’s only one error, and a pretty simple one at that. “It’s” with an apostrophe can only mean “it is” or “it has.” The apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters in this case, just like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “can’t,” so if you are using “it’s” with an apostrophe and cannot logically replace it with either “it is” or “it has,” then the correct spelling is “its” with no apostrophe. Example:
  • It’s been too long since I spent the day at the seaside.
  • The maple shed its leaves assiduously throughout the fall afternoon.
I don't know how many times I’ve been handed a manuscript to edit where the author—literate, intelligent, successful—somehow had this distinction exactly backwards, or at the very least was not up to using the correct spelling more than about three out of five times, say.

But of course there's an excellent reason why “it’s” and “its” get misused by capable writers. It’s simply that the apostrophe has one other major function in English besides standing in for missing letters. The apostrophe also is used to mark the possessive case, as in “John’s books” or “the leaders' conference.” The problem, naturally, is that “its” is a possessive pronoun, so the instinct is to want to insert an apostrophe to mark possession. Pronouns are different from nouns, though. We just don’t do apostrophes in our possessive pronouns (his, her, your, their) the way we do with our nouns.

So, then, enter common error in English #2: Correctly inserting the apostrophe in a possessive noun. Here's one that I often have to stop and think about, though the basic rule is straightforward: For a singular noun, add apostrophe-s to the end to make it possessive. For a plural noun ending in “s,” add only an apostrophe to make it possessive, and for plural nouns not ending in “s” (such as children), add apostrophe-s to the end to make it possessive. Examples:
  • the boss’s desk (singular noun; add apostrophe-s to form the possessive)
  • the child’s bookshelf (singular noun; add apostrophe-s to form the possessive)
  • a managers’ meeting (plural noun ending in “s”; add apostrophe to form the possessive)
  • the men’s room (plural noun not ending in “s”; add apostrophe-s to form the possessive)
So far, so good—but there is one little hitch when it comes to proper nouns. For a proper noun ending in “s,” there is an acceptable style that allows for adding just an apostrophe to the name to make it possessive, whether singular or plural. Example:
  • Paul Brians’ excellent book on English usage
    (singular proper noun made possessive by adding an apostrophe)
  • Jacqueline du Pré’s recordings of Brahms’ cello sonatas
    (two singular proper nouns—one made possessive by adding apostrophe-s; the other made possessive by adding an apostrophe)
  • the Masons’ expansive collection of exotic pets
    (plural proper noun made possessive by adding an apostrophe)
Of course, the sign hanging in the yard of your neighbor’s house probably should have no apostrophe at all; it should just read “The Smiths,” I think. That is, I think the sign is short for [This is the house where] The Smiths [live]. But there may be an argument for adding an apostrophe to the end of “Smiths” if you think the sign stands for something like [This is] The Smiths’ [house]. I don't think, however, that the case can be made for a sign reading this way: “The Smith’s,” though surely you will see such signs wherever you may roam.

Fine—that’s two errors tied to “its” vs. “it’s,” but where could the third error to avoid be? It gets a bit trickier, since this is not clear-cut error-correction turf anymore, but consider these two (classic) sentences:
a) The committee reached its decision.
b) The committee reached their decision.
Note, first, that “its,” not “it’s,” is the correct spelling in Example a). That's worth noting because there's my flimsy connection to the its/it’s question I'm addressing. But the issue now becomes transmogrified—it’s no longer a matter of wrestling with apostrophes and possessive forms; now it’s a question of singular vs. plural. And here, I think, is the source of much confusion among native English speakers. It all seems pretty simple when you use sentences like this:
  • The dog wagged its tail.
  • The cats ate their dinner.
Baby stuff, of course. “Its” refers to the dog; “their” to the cats. If you mess this up you probably are not a native speaker of English. On the other hand, go back to sentences a) and b) above, and ask yourself what parts of the sentence are missing. Is it a) or b)?:
a) The committee[, acting as a unified whole,] reached its decision.
b) The [members of] the committee reached their decision.
And on this point you need to settle into some comfortable in-between space that decides both can be correct. Now, enlightened, you can go forward knowing you know which one you mean when using the singular (its) or the plural (their).

There is so much more to say about “their” and “they,” and the tradition of the “singular they,” which has been covered quite thoroughly elsewhere. For now, I’ll just take the opportunity to announce that these issues and many others are addressed concisely, accurately, and fairly in Common Errors in English Usage 2nd Edition, which—as of today—is available for ordering and will be shipping in about three weeks. Have fun!

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