The Compulsive Copyeditor

October 25, 2011

I’m Possessive . . .

. . . but I know when to let go.

My older (not older than me, I mean, but probably older than you) editor colleagues are appalled when I tell them that the neuter third-person possessive “its” is definitely on the way out, and that while I still loyally use “its,” I have resigned myself to its (it’s) disappearance, and even to the logic of its disappearance.

Look, we make possessives by adding “apostrophe s.”  The only reason we break that rule in the case of “it” is to avoid confusing the possessive with the contraction of “it is” (“it’s going to be a long day”).  But why are we suddenly so phobic about confusion?  We constantly distinguish between homonyms on the basis of context alone.  When we “peer” through a mail slot we don’t think of forcing a member of the House of Lords through the aperture.  Or for a better example (because both are verbs), we know that it’s one thing to “tear up” and another to “tear up your Kleenex.”  People who form the possessive “it’s” may be ignorant of the niceties of grammar, but the niceties—especially, God knows, in English!—are often arbitrary, and in this case the ignorance is logical.

I believe that sooner than later, the dictionaries will accept “it’s” first as an acceptable alternative, and then as the correct way to form the neuter third person plural.  And why not?  (Ironically, I’d be willing to betcha “his” started out as “he’s.”) Language changes because usage is the ultimate authority, or as William Safire used to call her, “Norma Loquendi.” (In this case, actually, her cousin, Norma Scribendi.)

There is one problem, and that’s that when people are uncertain about where apostrophe’s belong, they multiply like fleas.  As in the preceding sentence (I actually typed that unintentionally!), they are attracted to any terminal “s” and thus they start infecting plurals, which is beyond the pale.

And . . . here’s what prompted me to write this . . .

Today I actually saw           you’r

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