The Language Perfectionist: In Its Way, It’s a Frequent Error

This is a “By Reader Request” column.

Self-described ETR fan Peg Sausville writes to disclose her “biggest all-time pet peeve”: mistakes that involve its and it’s. “I see these errors every day — on the Internet, in newsletter articles, in e-mail. Everywhere.”

Examples of such punctuation gaffes: “My cat is chasing it’s [its is correct] tail again.” Its [It’s is correct] always sunny in Philadelphia.

The word it’s is a contraction of it is. The apostrophe stands for the missing letter. And its is a possessive personal pronoun that is not a contraction. Thus, it contains no apostrophe, although many people insist on inserting one.

If you’re in doubt about whether to use the apostrophe, mentally substitute it is and see if the sentence is still intelligible.

In Comma Sense, a fine guide to punctuation by Richard Lederer and John Shore, the authors cite these similar sentences with quite different meanings:

A clever dog knows its master.
A clever dog knows it’s master.

To language sticklers, the abuse of apostrophes is especially irritating. A group of these curmudgeons even formed an Apostrophe Protection Society! Indeed, misuses abound, as I discovered when I saw this sentence recently on the menu of a popular fast-food chain: “Kid’s make your own pizza.”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.