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.]