It’s vs Its: A Typo Forever

Capitol DomeA comment from a British subscriber and a recent post on one of my favorite grammar websites evoked a memory about an unforgettable — and unforgivable — punctuation error I made years ago. All have to do with it’s vs. its.

The British subscriber to my monthly column named the misuse of it’s and its her biggest pet peeve.

The blog post on Daily Writing Tips featured misuse of it’s and its, stating:

Despite the hundreds, perhaps thousands of explanations to be found on the Web regarding the difference between these two spellings, the mistake of writing it’s for its remains the most common written error of them all.

Review what’s right and what isn’t:

It’s is the contraction for it is or it has:
It’s cold outside.
Do you think it’s time to leave?
If you’re looking for your phone, it’s in the car.
It’s
been weeks since I’ve seen him.

Its is the possessive form for it:
The committee took its lead from club members.
The dog froze in place, and its hair stood on end.
The college raised its tuition rates last year.
I saw the movie during its first run.

I suspect what makes it’s vs. its so confusing is that almost every other possessive includes an apostrophe: the girl’s shoes, the dog’s tail, Robert’s message. Maybe these will help:

Tip 1: Try to remember that other pronoun possessives — hers, his, theirs — do not have an apostrophe. Neither does its, the possessive form of it.

Tip 2: Mentally substitute it is wherever you use it’s / its. You’ll quickly recognize what’s right.

My Monumental it’s vs. its Error
My error did not result from lack of knowledge; it was due in part to careless writing, but more to carless editing. My editing. Let me explain.

General contractor J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc. of Janesville, Wisconsin, was a valued client of mine for 14 years. I had the privilege of helping the company tell the story of the extensive restoration work its crews performed on Wisconsin’s State Capitol.

Because of the historical significance of this magnificent structure and the scope of the dozen-year, $145-million project, I had the opportunity to chronicle the progress and feature it in several corporate newsletters.

One day, a Cullen carpenter was removing escutcheon plates and knobs from massive wooden doors so the doors and brass hardware could be renewed and polished. He discovered a note tucked into a small recess behind one escutcheon. Imagine his surprise — and joy — when he saw that the note was written and signed by his carpenter grandfather nearly a century earlier. Talk about poignant!

When I was relating this event in writing, I made a reference to the door that had a note “in it’s recess.” It of course should have been “in its recess.”

As if this were not bad enough, the newsletter my faux pas appeared in went into a time capsule that will be opened years — maybe decades — from now. My careless error will live in perpetuity.

I was devastated when I discovered the error, and it remains one of my most regrettable mistakes and unpleasant writing memories.

Two lessons emerged from this experience:

  1. Writers are not their own best editors. I should have had someone unfamiliar with the story look at it through fresh eyes.
  2. Even the most ruthless editors are human and make mistakes.

To close with a positive memory, here’s one about the Capitol:
During work on the interior of the rotunda’s dome, I climbed multiple ladders to scaffolding at the apex to take photos of Cullen crew members in action. While I was there, I reached up and touched the Edwin Blashfield mural that adorns the concave interior surface 200 feet above the floor. What a heady moment that was!

Do you have a memorable grammar faux pas? Share in the comment section what you learned … and cleanse your soul!

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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