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A Thought…

Being a parent means understanding why some animals eat their young…

   — Brian Fink, Calvin and Hobbes comic letters

It’s Its Problem!

Posted on 2017-Apr-08 at 13:30:44 by Phil

Why do so many people have a problem with using the correct possessive form of it? Reading through not only online stuff, but also (supposedly edited) serious newspapers and magazines, I swear that the use of it’s to indicate possession by “it” well outnumbers the correct its. Are people in general just stupid now, and an IQ of 100 now to be regarded as Genius level? Are our schools totally failing us? Or is the English language actually changing?

I’ve long wondered why the possessive of it is its, and not it’s like almost every other word’s possessive form. This is a serious irregularity in English orthography, and I would like to know if its is an artificial construct, and people are simply returning to a more natural and regular it’s. If that is true, I can stop raising my blood pressure every time I see the wrong form, and accept that something new (or old is new) is showing up.

So, where would the use of ’s to indicate possession come from? I suspect that I can draw parallels to the use of the suffix ed to indicate past tense. Apparently, in ye olden times, you would have said “I did fix the door” or “You did bake a cake” to indicate that the action happened in the past. At some point, the did migrated to the other side of the verb (“fix” or “bake”) and was attached to it in a contraction: “I fix’d the door” or “You bake’d a cake”. You can see such constructions in writing well into the 18th century, and even beyond. Eventually, the contraction was discarded (along with the apostrophe) and an “e” inserted if a vowel was needed: “I fixed the door” or “You baked a cake”.

Did something similar happen to indicate possession? Perhaps the word was “has” (for third-person) or “have” (for first- or second-person). “John has [the] house” or “It has [a] price” might have been contracted to “John’s house” or “It’s price”. It’s hard to tell if this was more recent than “did” becoming the suffix “rsquo;d”, as the apostrophe is still present, or if the apostrophe was deliberately kept to minimize confusion that the word wasn’t a plural. Sometime after this point, some language authority or influencer probably noticed that there was mass confusion over whether it’s meant a contraction of it is (or less often, it has), or simply the possessive form of it. They then decreed that the possessive of it was to lose its apostrophe (since its really isn’t used as the plural of it) and become its. Thus was introduced yet another English language irregularity to confuse everyone ever since.

Was that what happened? I’d love to hear from some real linguists as to whether I’ve re-invented a well-known theory, or if there is a better explanation for why its is the possessive of it, rather than it’s (which almost everyone uses anyway). Is the English language in the middle of a shift and simplification?


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