Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Its not that big a deal

In this week’s After Deadline blog, Philip Corbett led with recent homophone misspellings in the New York Times – one the common eggcorn reign in for rein in, and several others that are just slips of the brain (then for than, palette for palate, gate for gait). But Corbett avoided the alarmist hyperbole that so often accompanies lists of such blunders: He did not refer to the non-eggcorn errors as “confusions,” as if the spelling-challenged writer truly didn't know a then from a than.

Same day, different blog: At Grammarphobia, Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman wandered into the "confusion" quagmire and couldn't get unstuck. A reader asked whether using its for it’s was a grammatical error or a spelling error; here's their answer,* with my objections:
A: On a superficial level, this qualifies as both a punctuation error and a spelling error.
But on a deeper level, it’s a grammatical error, because it represents a failure to distinguish between (1) the possessive pronoun and (2) the contraction.
What “deeper level”? You're saying the writer doesn’t know the difference between the actual words its and it’s? That he mistakenly writes “it’s tires are flat” because he thinks it's OK to say “it is tires are flat”? Of course you don’t think that. Sometimes a mixup -- reign in for rein in -- could be either a simple spelling goof or a genuine confusion (resulting in an eggcornish reinterpretation of the metaphor). Not so with its and it’s. We could drop the apostrophe entirely and we’d still know which was which, because in fact we don't confuse them grammatically.
It also represents a failure to recognize that possessive pronouns don’t sport apostrophes.
Yes, but this is that same “superficial” spelling or punctuation error  you noted already.
So the problem is more than just a spelling goof in our opinion. That probably puts us into the grammar-error camp.
Except that there is no “grammar-error camp.” It’s just not a possible interpretation of this spelling mistake. But usage mavens have been calling these errors “confusions” for so long that a lot of people have trouble distinguishing true misunderstandings from misspellings. Not that I endorse misspellings; but they don’t, by themselves, imply weakness of intellect or failure to grasp the sense of a word. We shouldn't go around scaring one another by implying that they do.

*I actually first wrote "here's there answer," though I caught it immediately. And no, I am not confused about the difference between their and there.


Benjamin Lukoff said...

Amen. What they can indicate is lack of attention to detail and perhaps lack of a great amount of reading.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I could not agree with you more. They're errors, but trivial ones. Until I hear someone "they are books are on the table" I refuse to believe anyone "confuses" the meanings of "their, there, they're".

John McIntyre said...

I agree that it's excessive to inflate these irritating but minor misspellings into major concerns, but I think that it is sometimes possible to differentiate between an actual confusion and a mere brief shot across the wrong synapse. My students, for example, tend to look blank about the "free reign"/"free reign" slip until I explain to them that it's a buried metaphor about horseback riding. Having no experience with horses, they don't recognize the metaphor.

Richard Hershberger said...

While Grammarphobia claims to be a blog, it is actually a question and answer column. Given the subject matter of the column, there is a certain irony to its authors not knowing the difference.

Patricia O'Conner strikes as well meaning but out of her depth. She is a competent writer, and makes the mistake of thinking that this qualifies her to analyze language. (I am a competent driver. I don't imagine therefore than I am an auto mechanic.) The confused thinking you describe here is the inevitable result.

Anonymous said...

People love to suggest that a typo stems from the ignorance of the writer (or editor or proofreader) when the issue often is a momentary lapse of attention, something we're all guilty of. It was a mistake to try to categorize the error.

I often h̶e̶r̶e̶ hear complaints like "Why don't you learn the difference between 'its' and 'it's'? Almost everyone does know the difference, but our fingers are following a familiar pattern when our minds have already moved on.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I also love the way they - and many, many others - end up by saying "It's a simple matter to keep them straight".

No. If it was all that simple, people wouldn't do it. (Sheesh, I do it pretty often, I just catch it (mostly) when I do.) It's obviously not simple at all.

I'm starting to believe that those of us who say "it's so simple" about spelling sound like the people who say "what do you mean, you can't figure out how much you're losing per hour by driving ten miles to save three cents on gas? It's so simple!"

John L said...

As Jan point's out, the two itses are pronounced and learned as the same word, like that, which, bear, and many other homophones. My question is, why should one use apostrophe's for either its?

You can't hear an apostrophe when you're speaking, so you don't really need an apostrophe at all. Its just another arbitrary rule, like using a circumflex accent in fête, or capitalizing the second letter in iPhone, or no white shoes after Labor Day.

Attempting to distinguish apostrophically between a few (but not most) homophones seems pointless at best.

(Note, btw, that it's probably not the "free reign"/"free reign" slip that your students look blank about, John. Or maybe it is, if you spelled it like that for them.)

But Jan is of course, right that this is not a grammar mistake, except in the sense of "Grammar" as taught in Anglophone schools -- i.e, the subject that you use to put people down with because they don't talk like you.

Jonathon said...

Calling it a grammar error possibly arises from an unclear sense of what "grammar" is, along with a mindset that gives the rules primacy and assumes that any deviations from them are errors or confusions.

With the possessive its, both apostrophized and unapostrophized forms have existed since the beginning. At some point people made a rule to try to keep the forms straight.

The fact that people still don't keep them straight, even though the rule is explicitly taught in school, doesn't mean they're confused. If anything, it just shows that, as The Ridger said, the rule is not as easy as we like to think. And no real confusion results for readers—just irritation for the sticklers.

ella said...

It's a particularly knotty confusion, as the possessive 's' ending in English is marked by an apostrophe in proper nouns. Something that can only be learnt through memorisation, not by logic.

mighty red pen said...

"Not that I endorse misspellings; but they don’t, by themselves, imply weakness of intellect or failure to grasp the sense of a word."

Considering how often I make the it's/its mistake (more often than I'd like to admit), I certainly HOPE this is true!

I don't like to say things drive me nuts, but one thing that DOES drive me nuts is reading any comment board and seeing people blasting others as stupid for making simple mistakes. An errant apostrophe does not signal the end of times.

MelissaJane said...

The free reign/rein issue is an interesting one, as really either word can often make perfect sense. If a metaphor has become outdated because its referent is no longer widely understood, and "free reign" is a more intelligible analogy to the user and makes sense in context, then can we really call it a mistake simply because "free rein" used to be commonly used?

arnie said...

There is no way of telling, apart from context, if a speaker is using its, it's, or the totally 'wrong' its', for that matter. Why attach such importance to the written word when we don't worry about it in spoken English? Just because some text, written or spoken, is ambiguous does not mean that it is ungrammatical.

Dennis Hodgson said...

I think that your grammar nazis dropped the ball. "Its" is not a possessive pronoun, except in a sentence like "that nest is its", which is a construction that almost everyone instinctively shies away from.

A little bit of history: type compositors have always disliked apostrophes, and "its" did originally have one. This is the only example of their arbitrary deletions to have succeeded with the wider public.

The Ridger, FCD said...

@dennis hodgson: "the dog carries its ball in its mouth" strikes me as utterly unremarkable.

Zak said...

Excellent post.
I try to be a careful writer but I am dyslexic and the itss (plural of its?) thing drives me nuts. Why do we need the ungrammatical "its?" Both can have the apostrophe and there would never be any confusion.