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Sweating the small stuff

Jan Freeman, writing at Throw Grammar From the Train, points out that it’s for its is a spelling error rather than a mark of ignorance or a moral failing. People, at least literate adult people, know the meanings of the two forms and simply make a mechanical error. Everyone does.

The slip is made easy because English uses the apostrophe to indicate both contraction and possession. In Anglo-Saxon, es was one of the suffixes indicating possession. As Middle English developed, es came to be used for all possessives, and, since the e was not pronounced, the apostrophe was introduced to indicate the omission.

The development has not been smooth sailing. Some writers thought erroneously that ’s was a contraction of his, so you have Sir Thomas Browne writing things like “Moses his man.” And before orthography became standardized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you have Jane Austen writing her’s.

For today’s writers, as those busy fingers navigate along the keyboard at the brain’s direction, it is extremely easy for the pilot to blink and veer to the familiar pattern it’s rather than the equally familiar pattern its. The same thing happens with a lot of closely resembling pairs, such as then and than.

We're all susceptible to such slips, which look sloppy and require cleaning up to make a text presentable, but they are still minor errors, however annoying. They indicate that you are unkempt, not that you are illiterate.

Many of you have been kind enough to point out typos in these dispatches*—the other day I mistyped America in a headline, thanks to posting early in the morning, before coffee, while wearing the wrong glasses. That was embarrassing and a mark of haste and carelessness, but the reader who pointed it out did not assume that I was ignorant of the correct spelling.

Ignorant and incompetent writing abounds, so there is plenty about which to get huffy. But don’t spend your superiority on typos and trivial misspellings. Save it for the big things.


*Correcting a copy editor appears to be one of the profoundest satisfactions in life.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:16 AM | | Comments (15)


"it’s for its is a spelling error rather than a mark of ignorance or a moral failing."

Clearly you haven't given much attention to, been extensively exposed to, or spent much time reading what the kids today have to say on the internet. (I envy you.) Yes, a lot of them are that ignorant and poorly taught, and no, most of them don't care in the least that they abuse their own language (a moral failing). I have a feeling that the younger you go, the less frequently it's "just a typo".

Oh yes, Mr. Petrie, I do occasionally encounter some of the turrible, turrible things Those Young People are doing to Our Fair Language. But in the course of business, I'm more familiar with the vile things that adults, many of them purporting to be educated, do to it.

I have to disagree with you and Jan Freeman here...there are certainly times when people mistype its for it’s or vice versa (I’ve done it often enough myself), but I’ve run across too many people who are genuinely confused to chalk every instance up to typos. As you say, the root is the fact that apostrophe+s can indicate either possession or contraction; some people seem to have learned just one side of this rule, thinks that it can only signal contraction, or only signal possession.

It’s the same with your/you’re--some people just don’t understand the difference, and use the two interchangeably. I’ve instructed one particular individual on your/you’re many times, and he still gets it wrong. The argument I hear from him is, “they sound the same, and you know what I mean from context, so why does spelling matter?” I think he’d be happy if we just dropped one version from the language entirely.

U know what, Sarah, maybe ur right.

But it goes against the grain

I have just begun following you on Twiiter. Your tweets are an inspiration, as I write too much with no editor to help disentangle what I say from what I mean.

And isn't that why we have grammar at all? It's to try to balance the work for both writer and reader.

You mustn't let all off us the hook so easily. I want very much to experience all my errors as moral failings and encourage others to do likewise!

As Sarah's example points out, if someone repeatedly puts the onus on the reader to figure it out because "you know what I mean", then it's a slide from having a crisis of morality, to an embarrassment over an understandable error, to finally the self-absorbed sentiment of "bite me".

There's nothing wrong with being bilingual, i.e. knowing how to translate "I find this group to be both antagonistic and rude" into "h8trs". However, it still comes down to respecting that someone has to read whatever you write.

(apologies if there have been multiple submissions to your server from me -- it is not liking my efforts at verification)

If spelling and grammar were not standardised until the 19th century how is it possible to accuse Sir Thomas Browne of error ? Easy to state but without evidence or citing an example just another case of a journalist claiming the high ground against a literary giant. Everyone in Europe recognises Americans as frequently guilty of gross grammatical gaffes.

Springing to the defense of Sir Thomas Browne, who does not require his assistance, Mr. Faulkner neglects to notice that I merely cited a faulty etymology that was common in the seventeenth century.

We in America recognize a tendency on the other side of the Atlantic to sneer at Americans on mistaken grounds.

Lynne Truss, author of 2002's blockbuster bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves, disagrees: "The confusion of the possessive 'its' (no apostrophe) with the contractive 'it's' (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy . . . .." Educated people who persist in doing so, she continues, "deserve to be struck by lightening, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave."

So she does. I commend Louis Menand's New Yorker article on her book. Sample passage:

About half the semicolons in the rest of the book are either unnecessary or ungrammatical, and the comma is deployed as the mood strikes. Sometimes, phrases such as “of course” are set off by commas; sometimes, they are not. Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases (“Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions”), before correlative conjunctions (“Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t”), and in prepositional phrases (“including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’ ”). Where you most expect punctuation, it may not show up at all: “You have to give initial capitals to the words Biro and Hoover otherwise you automatically get tedious letters from solicitors.”

Read more

Eats, Shoots & Leaves convinced me that Lynne Truss is a snarky bitch with no talent other than smirking. Just sayin'

Au contraire, you insinuated error when writing -Some writers thought erroneously that ’s was a contraction of his, so you have Sir Thomas Browne writing things like “Moses his man.

For as long as American authors continue to misattribute poems as originating from Browne's pen (Madeleine L'Enge for example) Browne will need defenders from poor scholarship.

Useful to assist and silence one's critics if one can cite the precise example from Browne's writings, (presumably from Pseudodoxia) of this grammatical error.

Lynne Truss is a humorist. Exaggeration for humorous effect makes her neither a language arbiter nor a snarky bitch. (See also: Rush Limbaugh.)

From "Hydriotaphia": "If we begin to die when we live, and long life be but a prolongation of death, our life is a sad composition; we live with death, and die not in a moment. How many pulses made up the life of Methuselah, were work for Archimedes: common counters sum up the life of Moses his man."

Mr. Faulkner appears to have missed the point of the post, which was no more disrespectful of Sir Thomas than of Miss Austen, but I am disinclined to cover the same territory for the benefit of his understanding.

Hi Mark !

I'm well familiar with that quote by Browne wearing his mathematician's hat, note how he piles proper-noun symbol upon symbol as a numerical momento mori of time passing. It's from 'Hydrioaphia'. The word 'erroneously' in my understanding implies some kind of mistake. It always helps if the text is quoted instead of implied. Thanks.

I say, pity the fool who gets his, or her jollies from "correcting a copy editor". I suggest..... get a life.

Ideally, I suppose, perfectly edited (and readable) prose might well be the ultimate goal of many a prescriptivist, detail-obsessed copy editor, but alas the lurking bugaboo of almost inevitable human error----the unwitting miscue, or oversight---- makes perfection an admirable, yet ever-elusive objective.

Trying to make the proverbial silk purse out of s sow's ear is often, I would imagine, the copy editor's lot, and ultimate challenge. You guys and gals (and you know who you are), have to deal w/ either the pearls of prose, or more likely, the reams of drivel you are given; and must dutifully do your best to give the eventual reader(s) something half-way coherent, and readable, and as faithful to the original author's narrative intent.. At times, i would venture to say, a most daunting task.

At least that's my take from this average reader's somewhat jaundiced perspective. What say you?


P.S.: ------Prof. McI., permit me a little off-topic detour, that I'd like to share w/ you and our fellow bloggers.

This past rather chilly Friday evening here in Los Angeles, I had the good fortune to inadvertently stumble upon an L.A. County Museum screening of the new Clint Eastwood-directed film, "J. Edgar", starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the former, (young and old), autocratic FBI boss, J. Edgar Hoover, himself.

Immediately after the screening, the audience of perhaps 300-plus-mostly-paying-viewers were treated to a rather enlightening, engaging, and somewhat entertaining on-stage interview w/ producer/ director Eastwood, lead-actor DiCaprio, supporting actor Armie Hammer (who played Hoover's confidant/ adult life-long partner, Clyde Tolson)), and young screen writer Dustin Lance Black. A Mr. McGrath (whose first name escapes me), who has edited for such publications as The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review, asked the questions.

Frankly, the film felt a little long, but for me, nonetheless, brought fresh insight into the nuanced, quirky, complex character of J. Edgar Hoover, who for many American's seemed overbearing in his manner, highly secretive, ultra-conservative in his approach to law-enforcement, and yet, truth-be-told, was almost single-handedly responsible for many of the innovative methodologies that today we take for granted in the world of crime prevention, law enforcement, and criminal investigation. Both CSI-type science-based forensics, and the concept, and implementation of systematic fingerprinting criminals was pioneered by Hoover, as were the more controversial investigative tools of clandestine electronic surveillance, and secret wire-tapping.

I felt DiCaprio did a most stellar job of capturing the driving intensity, and internal angst of both the young-up-and-coming Fed lawman, and the time-worn, physically ailing, rather pathetic character of latter years, as Hoover saw his little exclusive fiefdom weakening, and his energies flagging. At times the flash-back narrative style of the film got a bit tedious, but wasn't a game-changer for the worse.

Eastwood and screenwriter Black treated Hoover's sexual ambiguity, and personal secretiveness in this area, along w/ his inordinate closeness to his doting mother (played admirably by Dame Judy Dentch) very respectfully, and w/ little judgement; whereas perhaps w/ a less sympathetic, less sensitive director ( or screenwriter), this aspect of the FBI boss's 'private' world could have easily drifted into tawdriness, and cheap spectacle. We actually feel some empathy, and sympathy for the man. At least I did.

This was a man who appeared to have never had a fully intimate, long-term sexual/ loving relationship w/ either a woman, or a man. In this film, we are left to speculate how close Hoover and his life-partner, and confidant, Tolson, really were. Was it purely a Platonic relationship, or more deep? "J. Edgar', the film, only intimates, but never reveals. (Hope I'm not giving too much away here. Sorry.)

The prosthetic make-up for the aged Hoover and his partner, (Clyde Tolson played by Armie Hammer), in my view, was a little stiff and unnatural-looking, to some degree; although DiCaprio's aged Hoover was more convincing than Hammer's oldster, Tolson. Of course, as they pointed out in the interview, it could take up to 6-to-seven hours in make-up to get into full character. It was a real challenge for them to pull off the required facial expressions, on camera, w/ so much artificial goop, and gunk layered on their mugs.

All-in-all though, quite a remarkable film, that I, for one, highly recommend seeing.

It was quite a thrill for me, and my buddy from The L.A. Times, to take in this serendipitous event. (We had come to see an exhibit of seminal California design from the '50s & '60s,
having no clue that the "J. Edgar" screening of the film, followed by the post-screening interview w/ the principle 'players' would be happening that very evening. Twenty-five-dollars well spent. Over an hour standing outside, in line, on a waiting list, was well worth it.

Even caught a few glimpses of renowned painter/ filmmaker, Julian Schnabel (and a lady friend?) at the affair. He wore a brownish, tweedy sport-coat, and casual white cotton pants w/ the de rigeuer paint stains. Loafers w/ no socks filled out the ensemble. Very NYC. HA!

Many Hollywood entertainment obvious stalwarts, aspiring hopefuls, and sycophantic hangers-on were in attendance, as would be expected on such a frosty, early November night in 'The Land of Perpetual Dreams'.

This is your Hollywood correspondent..... over and out!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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