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



  1. …they are attracted to any terminal “s” and thus they start infecting plurals…

    Is that your last word on inflecting plurals? I guess you prefer cats’ to the cats’s pajamas. Yet style manuals differ. Gender inflection (or is it declension?) is the only regular declension we have left.

    Nice post. This is my favorite column of yours, but you knew that already. I just wish it came out more often. :)

    Comment by Chickelit — October 25, 2011 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  2. I know. I love the reliable way you show up, unprompted. Go ahead, egg me on. (You can imagine the splatter of puns and free associations those words just triggered.)

    egg . . . me . . . on
    (egg on me)

    I’ve just been laughing over a house style manual because it thinks you should write Descartes’s. My understanding (and Chicago Manual’s, I think) was that if the “s” is pronounced you add apostrophe s (“Mr. Jones’s suit”) but if not, not—just the apostrophe piggybacks on the existing “s,” making it audible—like putting vinegar on invisible ink—and turning it into a possessive (“Jacques’ memorial party,” Descartes’ Error). It’s a very economical move, working with what’s already there.

    Comment by amba (Annie Gottlieb) — October 25, 2011 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

  3. Oh, and it’s “the CAT’S pajamas.” Apparently a different rule applies to plurals than to the singular Jones and Descartes. In the case of multiple cats (which has always been the case with me), it would have to be “the CATS’ pajamas”—auditorily indistinguishable.

    Comment by amba (Annie Gottlieb) — October 25, 2011 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

  4. I know. I love the reliable way you show up, unprompted.

    Ah, but I am prompted. A little alert on my blog side bar moves your link into the top position whenever you post something new here. But still, I usually do drop whatever I’m doing to read it.

    Comment by Chickelit — October 25, 2011 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

  5. You must put Descarte’s before Deshorse’s!

    I’m even more of a rebel, isn’t wouldn’t, shouldn’t, …..ain’t! When we live in TweetVille dead weight apostrorrors (!) (lunging for a coinage!) must be purged!

    Comment by kngfish — October 25, 2011 @ 10:00 pm | Reply

  6. Absence may be the highest form of presence, but I sure wish you’d update this blog. You’r missed. :)

    Comment by chickelit — January 15, 2012 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

  7. I am a compulsive editor, too! I noted a rare error in your writing: it ought to be Chicago Manual‘s. Not sure if HTML coding works in these sorts of comments, so sorry if you see the coding.

    Comment by C. Thaxter (@CThaxter) — April 24, 2013 @ 4:01 pm | Reply

    • Thank you so much! It’s sort of masochistically refreshing to be on the receiving end.

      My only explanation for the lapse (it’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation!) is that this is where I let my hair down and indulge in content at the expense of form. It’s that “bloggers in their pajamas” thing.

      Comment by amba12 — April 24, 2013 @ 10:29 pm | Reply

  8. Gosh, that didn’t turn out well. In any case, the ‘s after the name of the publication would not be set in italic — I think. :)

    Comment by C. Thaxter (@CThaxter) — April 24, 2013 @ 4:03 pm | Reply

    • Here, it’s Chicago Manual‘s. How’s that? (I think you simply forgot to close the italics.)

      I’m thinking now that there’s another explanation for the lapse: laziness. If I could just hit “control i” a couple of times I’d have done it right. The HTML was just too much of a bother.

      Comment by Annie Gottlieb — April 24, 2013 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

  9. And now that I look at that — it’s inserting the apostrophe backwards!! So we’d have to keep the apostrophe inside the italics, I guess, even though it’s supposed to be roman: Chicago Manual’s Let’s see how that looks . . .

    Comment by Annie Gottlieb — April 24, 2013 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

  10. Weird is how. *sigh*

    Comment by Annie Gottlieb — April 24, 2013 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

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