Definition from Wiktionary, the free dictionary
Jump to: navigation, search

Here's a great example of shooting oneself in the foot:

The belief that its derived from it's or was a contraction of some longer form, or that it bears any relationship to the possessive apostrophe-s, are common misapprehensions.
  • First, if you're going to prescribe, get your own house in order. The copula are here links "The belief ... apostrophe-s [sic]", which is singular, to the plural "common misapprehensions". Fixing this by changing "are common misapprehensions" to "is a common misapprehension" still leaves an awkward sentence, which tries to talk about two different notions as "The belief that [notion 1] or [notion 2]." The sentence would need to be recast, correcting "apostrophe-s" along the way.
  • Second, there is no such thing as a possessive apostrophe per se. The apostrophe was originally used solely to indicate omitted letters, which is why you see it in Shakespeare indicating that, for example, "look'd" is to be pronounced as one syllable, while "looked" may be pronounced as two. Just as the -ed suffix has shortened over time, the genitive -es has as well. Chaucer writes of the Knight that "Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre" where we would now say "Full worthy was he in his lord's war," or more likely "He was fully worthy in his lord's war." Note that in this case we know by the rules of iambic pentameter that the "es" was pronounced as a full syllable, whereas in modern English it is not. In short, the apostrophe in posessive forms is very closely linked to the apostrophe in contractions. The possessive suffix 's derives from this, but it's the suffix, and not the apostrophe, that indicates possession.

Since the sentence in question just tries to amplify the advice of "don't use it's for the possessive" but without adding anything substantive to the discussion, I'm just going to remove it.

Frankly, I'm not entirely sure where the possessive its comes from. It's clearly a modern formation. Old and Middle English have hit for it (still retained in some American dialects in some contexts), with genitive his (not retained, to my limited knowledge). There is no older form like ittes or hittes to contract down to it's.

Shakespeare doesn't seem to use it's, though most editions you see will have modernized the orthography. For example, working from a facsimile of Antony and Cleopatry from the first folio, starting around line 1381, it appears that it is used by itself as a possessive, as in "It is iust so high as it is, and mooues with it owne organs." Caveat: I haven't checked every play.

It appears that what's really going on here is that, sometime relatively recently, the convention was adopted that its would indicate the possessive and it's would indicate the contraction. This was pretty clearly done on the basis of similarity to his/her/our/etc., but this is clearly just a handy mnemonic and not the consequence of some fundamental principle. Interestingly, this convention does not apply to one's. I would expect that this distinction only started to be made when it's began to supplant 'tis, but it would be very interesting to have more specific evidence.

Unfortunately for us here, this is one case where paper has a major advantage over bits. If you look at a paper copy, you can be pretty sure that no one has helpfully "corrected" the orthography in the process of conversion. -dmh 15:11, 12 August 2005 (UTC)

Corrected examples[edit]

I replaced the examples "this is its space ship" and "this book is its" because they did not in any way help the reader understand the usage. --SteveG23 14:46, 9 March 2007 (UTC)

Its as a possessive adjective or possesive pronoun, debatable[edit]

I would find the explanation why its supposedly lacks an apostrophe erroneous, accordingly online etymology 'its' derived from a contamination of 'it's' which itself came to replace the old neuter possessive pronoun 'his' which became solely masculine. (cf German and Dutch and most Germanic languages having the same genitive case for masculine and neuter), the simple reason that 'its' has no such apostrophe is convention of a contamination becoming widespread and etymologically it's incorrect use. Factual inaccuracies aside, I also find it subjectively debatable that 'its' is a possessive pronoun or adjective, rather, I find it to be a simple possessive noun phrase like 'John's' or 'The King's', this is how it started and it still functions grammatically like that. One for instance cannot say 'Those eyes of its' but one can say 'Those eyes of mine' or 'of his' et cetera, as one also cannot say 'Those eyes of The King's.' 19:26, 28 August 2009 (UTC)

As you can see below, I also am not really satisfied with the explanation of its's apostrophelessness (forgive me, couldn't resist) in the "Usage notes" section. In my opinion, the "Etymology" section, presenting the same facts, hits precisely the right tone: This is how the word is spelled. Here's a hint of an explanation, but mostly that's just how it is.. In contrast, the "Usage notes" comes off a little high-handed: You should have known this is how the word is spelled; the logic is inescapable. The logic is not inescapable. If it were, then one's would also be spelled without an apostrophe. The apostrophelessness of "its" is simply a spelling convention, but it is not one that is forced by any profound laws of grammar or orthography.
That having been said, I have no trouble with the phrase "those eyes of the king's" or "those eyes of Henry's". ACW 01:17, 2 March 2010 (UTC)

Etymology, usage[edit]

Here are a couple of vaguely-related notes.

Regarding etymology, I'm convinced that the OED has more information, but I'm not near my copy to check on it. I'm sure we could shed light on this by reading the OED's entry carefully.

Regarding usage, we are all accustomed to the stricture that spelling "its" with an apostrophe is flat-out wrong. It turns out, though, that this stricture is fairly modern. Reputable printers published works with possessive "it's" well into the 19th century. Right now I'm reading Frances Burney's Cecilia, (late 18th century) and the spelling "it's" is used throughout.

I fail to follow the logic in the first bulleted item of the Usage section:

  • Its is the possessive form of it. Its therefore does not take an apostrophe to indicate possession as it is already a possessive term, similar to his and hers.

"Henry's" is certainly the possessive form of "Henry". It is already a possessive term; according to the logic above, it shouldn't need an apostrophe. I'm not arguing with the conclusion: it's certainly an error in modern usage to spell "its" with an apostrophe. I'm just saying that one cannot reason one's way to that conclusion; it's a contingent fact of history, not a logical necessity. ACW 14:16, 25 February 2010 (UTC)

  • I agree and I have accordingly deleted the point. Jnestorius 15:14, 10 February 2011 (UTC)

Usage as a pronoun other than a possessive pronoun?[edit]

In the "pronoun" section, the text implies it can be used as either a possessive pronoun or a pronoun in general. I am not aware of any use of its as a pronoun other than as a possessive pronoun, e.g.:

  • A: (to B, who is holding a dog of unknown gender): I'll get the cat's dish, you get its.

Is there such a usage? Facts707 17:42, 10 May 2010 (UTC)

It's hard to search for examples, but I've found one by googling "its but" and cited it. Jnestorius 15:15, 11 February 2011 (UTC)
A few more from the w:British National Corpus:
  • Argentina, during the Peronist regime, had mistakenly thought that fusion was its for the asking.
  • Unlike Sun, which is only supplying Solaris 2.1 with its machines, Tatung is bundling its with Solaris 1.1 and selling Solaris 2.1 as an option.
  • Perhaps we should consider publishing details of the many failures in Conservative councils throughout the country, and not least in the borough in which this House is situated which, while exporting its homeless to other authorities, appears to be guilty of the illegal sale of houses that were not its to sell in the first place
  • The winners were the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) which increased its representation from 126 to 247 and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) which increased its from 131 to 213.
See also w:Talk:Possessive adjective#Its
Jnestorius 13:57, 12 February 2011 (UTC)