Friday, January 05, 2007

You've Got to Start Somewhere

A Public Service Announcement:

it's = it is

its = ownership.

This is probably the most common mistake writers of English (be it student papers, blogs or what have you) make in their everyday prose.

Now, for those of us who are simply chattering away and get it wrong, all right. We should (and do) know better, but OK. However I expect better things from publishing. In rereading Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz last night, I observed that it's was always used to show ownership, even though it is wrong, wrong, wrong. L.Frank Baum didn't do this - it's some (insert swear word) editor who figured that this author person has been dead for 90 years and didn't know what he was doing at the time.

"It's a lovely day." = It is a lovely day.

"The Colts are getting a new stadium and it's terrific." = The Colts are getting a new stadium and it is terrific (meanwhile I use the pile of dirt as a navigational landmark.)

"I have a new calendar. Its pictures are all funny." = I have a new calendar. The pictures which belong to it (ITS, people, no apostrophe!) are reasonably amusing.


Anonymous said...

The author of Eats Shoots and Leaves urges her readers to travel with an indelible marker and correct grammar like it's and its when they see it. I have actually done this--at my daughter's middle school....
Jeanne of the rural highways

Bartleby said...

For the past five years, I've been grading papers. My quizzes and exams do not require students to produce prose -- only mathematics, really. Lab reports, though, contain entire paragraphs. My students are mostly of an age to have been taught to read and write by "whole-language" methods, so that a word containing most of the correct letters looks good, or good enough, to them. Since almost all their reports are written with word-processing software, the spell-check crutch tends to intercept many of their misspellings. But the spell-checker doesn't catch misspellings that happen to form other legitimate words. My favorite example (I see it very often in lab reports) is the word "slope," spelled S-L-O-P. The students come to Conclusion Question #4, which asks them to identify the physical quantity associated with the slope of the velocity vs. time curve. The ones who've learned some physics will so often tell me that "the slop of the curve is the acceleration."

Sort of funny; sort of scary.

Jeanne: thanks for reminding me of my fantasy woman, Lynne Truss. Have you noticed the way she's looking into the camera in her dust-jacket photo on Eats, Shoots and Leaves? She wants me -- I'm sure of it. Someday, she and I will be together. The currents of time and space will carry us to that inevitable future event. The universe is just made that way; that's all there is to it.

harriet said...

Can I ask whether your students have problems with prepositions? I blogged about this a while back, because I was dumbfounded that nearly all my students seemed to use prepositions indiscriminately, without regard to their meaning. I have since heard similar stories from other music profs in other parts of the country. I find this totally mysterious. Why wouldn't you think the meaning mattered? Or is it just that conventional phrases are morphing somehow? Maybe this is a question for languagehat. Also, lemming, if you don't know about , you probably should.

Bartleby said...

Harriet: I can't say that I've noticed a particular preposition problem in my students' work. Of course, it would have to be severe and widespread to seem prominent. When you say they're being used indiscriminately, do you mean that they substitute an inappropriate preposition for the appropriate one, or is it something else?

lemming said...

Harriet - re:prepositions, yes, but "to" and "too" bug me less than it's and its.

Never seen your links before, thanks!

Bartleby: Ah, now the truth is out!

harriet said...

Yes, most of the time it's an apparently random substitution. Occasionally it's the matter of regional difference. For example, as someone who spent a substantial portion of her life on the East Coast, I occasionally do things "by accident." My husband, a Chicago native, does things "on accident." This never fails to bug me, but it's (not its) not out and out wrong, as far as I know. But my students seem to interchange "at," "of," and "by" at random (and occasionally "to"). I was actually kind of fascinated to discover how disorienting this is. This fall, I had one student paper in particular that was incomprehensible until I started changing prepositions. Once the prepositions were fixed, there were few other problems. But the problem was widespread, although to a lesser degree than this one paper.

Anonymous said...

I'm from the west coast and learned some things "by accident."

Rob said...

Speaking of prepositions, why must people end sentences with them? This is not a factor of one's level of education. Rather, it appears to be accepted practice in numerous walks of life. When a colleague of mine asks me where something is "at", I will continue to respond, "It's right near the preposition at the end of your last sentence."

OK, I guess it depends on the colleague...but c'mon people!

sumo said...

Yes, I learned about it's and its in elementary school, but I have to admit that most times that I write it's, I do the mental "it is" check in my head to make sure what I write matches the meaning I intend to convey. I feel a little foolish every time I do it because, come on, shouldn't I just know that by now? But I would feel much more foolish if I were to write the wrong word. And no, I do not feel bad starting conversational sentences with conjunctions!

The "on accident" thing is odd. I've never heard it that way. I think it is in that area of language where phrases are put together to mean something without having a strong logic as to why the words are paired together. As such, it will be a dynamic area that is, as you said, subject to regional changes. Ugh, that didn't come out so well. What I mean is, where does the phrase "by accident" come from anyway? "I found the secret door by accident." Really? Was it beside the accident or on top of the accident, because you may need to change your pronoun usage.