It’s It

In Emeryville, California, there’s still a venerated old ice cream company named “It’s It.” It’s right out there off the Bayshore Freeway. Tens of thousands of gridlocked commuters see its ice cream plant every day, and its trademarked brand name.

I’m told they make superb ice cream. Many kids grew up on it. My mom bought Dreyers if she bought it at all. So I wouldn’t know.

But I do know this. It’s properly punctuated.

I always wondered whether that brand name contributed to mass cultural confusion over the proper punctuation of the possessive pronoun “it”.

On page 86 of my October Sky and Telescope we see an amateur’s stunning three-color photograph of Jupiter. You can see the three “red spots”. You can see the moon Io transiting the planet. The caption reads:

” … to record Jupiter sporting it’s three red spots.”

I’ve seen this error in just about every major periodical except the New Yorker. A Google entry reports it in the New York Times

In our horribly inconsistent English language we write “Jupiter’s moons” or “Harriet’s kitchen” (proper nouns) but we write “its moons” or “her kitchen” when using pronouns. The only legal usage of “it’s” is “It’s a nice day”, a contraction of “it is”. Hence, there will never be a “her’s” or “him’s” unless we are talking doggie talk or baby talk: “Him’s just a baaaaby!”

(And even that is a contraction, though an illegal one).

The phrase “it’s three red spots” is just doggie talk frozen in print.

It’s a sorry day when we find hundreds of articles such as mine devoted entirely to a punctuation error on one pronoun, and pages upon pages of Google links to other articles and pages on the same phenomenon.

The real problem is one of magnitude. It’s become a cultural  phenomenon. 

At the worker bee level, unless you have a serious or professional interest in language, spelling and syntax, how in hell would you know the right way, if even the New York Times can’t get it right?

The publishing profession is supposed to consist of professionals. They’re expected to lead the way. At my place of business, writing skills are not an asset (certainly not one we prize highly enough to pay for), even though we exchange thousands of emails a day to dozens of workers at once with brilliantly crafted conciseness such as “OK” or “thanks”.

Most of the vice presidents will use “it’s” as a possessive because that’s what the others do, and that’s what we see in the newspapers and magazines, and who’s going to say anything as long as they get the point across?

Because they’re not setting the example, we’re seeing more and more constructs such as:

“If you have any question’s, please feel free to contact me” and
“I have ran the program’s”

As a matter of fact, our “I have ran the program’s” person has a simple time-saving rule: if a word ends in ‘s’, just include the apostrophe.

And those of us who know better think, “what do the clients think when they see this kind of writing?”

It’s possible that the “It’s It” folks foresaw the possibility of confusion, but that was way back in the days when spelling and grammar errors were still funny. Today they’re out of control. Come on, magazines and publishers: take back the language, and set the example again.

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