Saturday, November 5th, 2011

Grammar loses it’s battle against “it’s”

Between you and I

Do you hyper-correct yourself and say “between you and I” because you remember being told “Always put yourself last” and so you think you always have to say “and I”?

A trick I remember from junior high is this: remove the “you and” to see whether “I” or ”me” sounds correct in an objective phrase.

You’d never say, “Give it to I” or “It’s a present from I” or “The cat is sitting on I,” would you? (If you would, you’re beyond help.)

The rules of English grammar that call for prepositions to be followed by an object don’t suddenly disappear when you’re joined by someone else, which is why, even if you don’t know what a preposition or an objective pronoun is, you should know that “between you and me” is correct.

I’m a grammar and spelling geek and always have been. I paid attention in junior high English class when the teacher taught tricks such as the one to the right, but I also never really needed to study English grammar — it just came naturally to me, perhaps because I’ve been a voracious reader since I was very young. And therefore grammar and spelling mistakes jump out at me.

In junior high, at least when I was in junior high, English class was all about prescriptivism. Junior high English teachers (or I guess these days they’re “middle school” English teachers) try, in vain, to drill into their students’ heads the rules of English grammar. Do this, don’t do that, this is right, that is wrong, if you do it this way you’ll get an A, if you do it that way, you’ll get marked down. No wonder most kids hate English class, and no wonder most kids end up either not learning the grammar rules of their native language or remembering only pieces of rules which for the rest of their lives they then apply incorrectly without understanding them. (Why do you say “between you and I”? Um, because my junior high teacher told me to? No, she didn’t!)

Something I learned in college about grammar is that in addition to prescriptivism there is also descriptivism. In other words, part of grammar is indeed trying to get people to follow common rules when using language (which is good, because it helps us to understand one another), but a larger part of grammar is describing and understanding the ways in which our use of language evolves. Languages change over time, and no amount of prescriptivism can prevent that. Failing to acknowledge this only causes prescriptive grammarians ongoing annoyance and pain.

What kind of pain? The pain caused by endless examples of misused grammar. Perhaps you see dead people everywhere; at heart a prescriptive grammarian, I see broken grammar rules and misspelled words no matter what I’m reading.

A common example in American English is the incorrect usage of “it’s” (it apostrophe s) as the possessive form of “it.” Americans, learning to speak our variety of English, learn that apostrophes indicate possession and so we think that the way to make “it” possessive is to tack on an ’s. David → David’s car. Katrina → Katrina’s cat. Jesus → Jesus’s crucifixion. (Or is it Jesus’ crucifixion? — that’s another debate.) Thus many Americans, having dozed through junior high English classes, think this is perfectly okay: it → it’s.

You can find possessive “it’s” everywhere.

Of course you can see it on comments on blogs and YouTube. A guy on Gawker said, “Target is covering it’s ass here.” Someone on YouTube described a video of his pet squirrel as “A video of a baby squirrel I found abandoned by it’s mother.” I didn’t go searching for these examples but came across them while surfing the net over the past few weeks.

Accompaniment at It's Best, an example of the new possessive it from Global Ministries
Global Ministries endorses
the new possessive form
of “it”
But possessive “it’s” is also in more serious places.

Last Sunday my church celebrated Global Ministries Sunday, and our bulletin had an insert that trumpeted, ”Accompaniment at It’s Best!” (A prescriptive grammarian must have tipped off Global Ministries because someone there has since corrected the bulletin insert online.)

This morning my sister emailed our family my nephew’s middle school’s newsletter, which reported that “Tecumseh Middle School held it’s annual magazine fundraiser”:
Tecumseh Middle School provides an example of the new possessive form of it

And that’s when I realized that the battle for “its” is well and truly lost. If our middle schools have endorsed the new possessive form of “it,” we must acknowledge that “it’s” is now a part of standard American English.

Thus I hereby pledge never again to correct anyone’s use of “it’s” as the possessive form of “it,” and I apologize to those, such as David Esrati, whose use of possessive “it’s” I’ve corrected.

I’m hoping that we can allow both possessive forms of “it” to co-exist, at least for my lifetime, because I won’t ever be able to bring myself to write something like, “The company should review it’s policies” — I’m old school enough that I’d have to write, “The company should review its policies.”

However, just between you and me, I still won’t be as accepting of some other grammar usages.

Update 11/15/2011: The new spelling of the possessive form of “it” permeates the corporate world too. Dayton area accounting firm Flagel Huber Flagel & Co, in its official press release announcing its merger with Dohner Louis & Stephens, used the “it’s” spelling:

Sunday, May 30th, 2004
If you don't like words, you probably won't care about this, but I came across an interesting fact today, although I'm a few years late. On February 21, 2000, the American Dialect Society (whose site I read about today in William Safire's weekly New York Times Magazine column "On Language") selected the word she as the word of the past millennium. According to the society, "before the year 1000, there was no she in English; just heo, which singular females had to share with plurals of all genders because it meant they as well."

You might know that English is a Germanic language, and if you speak German you know that deutschsprechende Frauen m?ssen ein Wort noch teilen (German-speaking women must still share a word), not only with plurals of all genders but the formal second person because sie means she, they and you.

Okay, so maybe that's not the most earth-shattering thing in the world, but I liked learning about it.
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