Friday, July 17, 2009

Its & It's and Other Contractions

A friend posted a pet peeve on her Facebook the other day: using it's and its incorrectly. 

I agree. It bugs me to no small extent, especially when, unlike many English grammar rules, this one is easy enough to remember and use. So for the sake of other authors (as I've seen it misused by authors too often) as well as for anyone who cares about her grammar being correct and non-irritating, here's the rule:

When it's is a contraction, meaning it is, use the apostrophe: It's raining today.

When its shows possession, on the other hand, leave the apostrophe out: The rain made its leaves shiny.

Simple. Of course, it doesn't work that way with other contractions. For instance, "John's going to work" and "John's boat is orange" both use the apostrophe. So the only thing to remember is that if ITS shows possession, DON'T use an apostrophe. If you can change it to "it is" use it, but not otherwise.

Other apostrophes that mess people up are with plural possessives. A lady's dress is straightforward, but what about when there's more than one lady? If we have 3 ladies with 3 dresses, it would be: The ladies' dresses.  However, if the one lady's name is Jess, it would be Jess's dress, just like it would be Joan's dress. Simple?

If the possessive is plural to begin with, don't add an S after the apostrophe (do add the apostrophe!). If the possessive is singular, as in there's only one Jess, then add the S after the apostrophe.

But please, don't apostrophe a plural!  Trees are plural. NO apostrophe! One rabbit that multiplies becomes two rabbits, NOT two rabbit's. Rabbit's implies one rabbit owns (shows possession of) something, such as the rabbit's hole. Or if a group of rabbits own a hole together, it becomes the rabbits' hole (no S at the end because it's plural AND possessive).

Many new writers think they can rely on their editors (plural, no apostrophe) to catch these things. Unfortunately, I've seen many editors who didn't and the books go out with apostrophe mistakes. For those of you who write professionally, or plan to, don't rely on your editor for grammar knowledge. Learn it the way a mechanic has to learn how to build an engine, with all parts in the right places. That's your job.


Unknown said...

Loraine--I always have to stop with these two words to make certain I chose the correct one. And you're right--we see the wrong version used all too often. Another thing about apostrophes--in any contraction, whether the apostrophe is at the end, in the middle....OR at the beginning, the tail of the apostrophe turns to the left. I began to see this error in e-books:until- 'til (here the apostrophe is vertical, no tail) but in this case, the apostrophe would be turned to the right, as if enclosing the word. I finally e-mailed the publisher and alerted her that many books were going out with these glaring mistakes.
A big pet peeve of mine,whether in the spoken or written word,is use of the incorrect object of a preposition. "Between him and I"--that just grates on my nerves--broadcasters and newspeople say this all the time. Drives me crazy. They believe using "me" sounds low-class or something, I guess.Celia

LK Hunsaker said...

Celia, yes that one, too. I think people were corrected with "I" so often now they think it always has to be I instead of me.

Interesting about the tail on the apostrophe. A good word processor should do that correctly. Although 'til isn't generally supposed to be used. It should be till instead, which is a proper form of until without an apostrophe. (I had to look that one up a while back to be sure.)