A Grammatical Aside



just wrote in a comment to my previous entry, "The ability to rate one's knowledge
of a subject accurately is strongly correlated with one's knowledge."


a minute.  "One's"???  Word's
grammar checker didn't blink at that.  But
nor does it blink at "ones".  Well, according
to the OED, "one's" is the genitive declension
of "one".  Let's sum up:


Pronoun   Genitive


Me        My

You       Your

Us        Our

Him       His

Her       Hers

Them      Their

Thou      Thine

It        Its

One       One's


always thought that the reason that "its" doesn't take an apostrophe-s was because
the rule "add an apostrophe-s to form a possessive" applied
only to noun phrases
, not to pronouns (And of course, we all know that apostrophe-s
does not itself form a genitive noun --
otherwise, in the sentence "The First Lady is the President of America's wife," Laura
Bush would be associated with America, not President Bush.)


the heck is going on here?  Surely there
is some grammar pedant out there who can justify this.  My
faith in English grammar has been sorely tried.

Comments (28)

  1. mike says:

    Well, let’s work backward. In the phrase "The First Lady is the President of America’s wife", the possessive is applied to the entire phrase: "(the President of America)’s wife." This is common; here’s a nice example: "The woman I went to school with’s daughter". (http://www.chessworks.com/ling/papers/myths/mb003.htm) FWIW, the ability to add a possessive to a noun phrase and not just to a noun is a comparatively recent development in English: "Until well into Middle English times what Jespersen calls the ‘group genitive’, i.e. ‘[the king of England]’s’ nose did not exist, but the usual type was ‘[the king]’s nose of England’. In Old English the usual structure, before the use of the of-possessive would have been ‘the king’s nose England’s’ (http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/5/5-524.html)

    I have no explanation for the anomaly of "one’s" except to note that "one" is a "special" kind of pronoun since it has no direct antecedent. Unfortunately, my two most reliable sources for sussing out this kind of things are unavailable for the nonce.

    What’s actually interesting to contemplate is why the hell we have an apostrophe for the possessive at all. Possessive is just the genitive case; as such, it’s a normal noun declension, and has no more need for an apostrophe than the plural does. Nothing is elided with the possessive/genitive. And as noted, pronouns manage without it. German likewise has an -s for the genitive and manages without a possessive marvelously well. So whither the flingin-flangin possessive apostrophe, which does little more these days than confuse and annoy people?

  2. Matt says:

    Well, according to Strunk & White, "The prenominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours have no apostrophe. Indefinite pronouns, however, use the apostrophe to show possession." The example they use is "one’s rights". Shertzer (Elements of Grammar) notes that "there is no apostrophe before the s in the possessive of personal pronouns", which suggests that maybe you mis-remembered the rule.

  3. Matt says:

    Gah – that should be misremembered, not mis-remembered. So much for pedantry.

  4. Mike says:

    Um, that would be "*whence* the flingin-flangin possessive apostrophe." Sheesh. This comment feature needs an edit feature. πŸ™‚

  5. Eric Lippert says:

    Re: whence the apostrophe?

    I was under the impression that in archaic Germanic languages like Old English, the genitive case was indicated by adding "es", and that we elide the "e" with an apostrophe. But what I know about Old English grammar you could fit into a matchbox without removing the matches first, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I were completely misinformed…

  6. Anonymous says:

    its doesn’t have an apostrophe because you wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was the possessive or a contraction (of ‘it is’). At least that’s what I was taught in school πŸ™‚

  7. Ian Griffiths says:

    You’re on the right track with the "e" being elided with an apostrophe – that is indeed the origin of the use of an apostrophe as the indication of the genitive.

    But this still doesn’t explain "its". But that just turns out to be historical accident. The genitive form used to be "ites" – you can find a few examples of this in Old English documents of a certain age around on the web. (I forget which, but I did a search about 2 years ago the last time I had this discussion. I’m sure Google can still find them if you want to see them.)

    What seems to have happened is that "ites" got ellided, as frequently-used words tend to, but this happened much earlier in the history of English than the elision that happened to all other genitive forms. (Presumably because it was a widely-used word – the workhorses of a language are the ones that tend to get streamlined first, which is why the verb ‘to be’ is highly irregular in most languages.)

    At the time "ites" got elided to "its", apostrophes were apparently not used to indicate elision. (As far as I can tell… I’ve not done extensive research on this by the way. But what seems clear is that apostrophes weren’t used for this particular elision.)

    So the progression looks like this: originally the word was "ites", then it became "its" at a time when apostrophes were apparently not required on such elisions, and then quite a lot later, we started to elide *all* the genetive forms, but by then it was considered correct to indicate such elisions with an apostrophe.

    So "its" is an anomaly because we started eliding that long before we elided all of the other genitive forms.

  8. Dan Shappir says:

    So "its" is a case of maintaining backward compatibility πŸ™‚

  9. Mike says:

    The issue of ellision of the vowel in genitive -es only partly explains the possessive apostrophe; the -as ending was also used for plural of masculine strong nouns in OE (nice declension and conjugation chart here: http://www.engl.virginia.edu/OE/courses/handouts/magic.pdf), which suggests that many noun plurals once had, as they did genitive singular, an unstressed vowel to go with their -s. Granted, it has less to do with how things really were than how they were perceived to be when our not-quite-rational system of orthography was being codified. As I sort of opined earlier, IMO the apostrophe is more trouble than it’s worth for possessives; even educated people are confused about its use, if my email Inbox is any evidence. In historical linguistics, mass confusion about forms is often a prelude to an evolutionary change. πŸ™‚

  10. Mike says:

    Incidentally and on a slightly different note, you say "My faith in English grammar has been sorely tried." I do hope that you’re careful to make a distinction between the real grammar of English, which is splendid and about which one never need feel sorely tried, and the highly artificial rules of English orthography, which are in fact so arbitrary that you and I don’t even spell common words (e.g. "color") the same way.

  11. Eric Lippert says:

    I was being sarcastic.My bad; it is often difficult to deduce sarcasm from mere text and I was insufficiently clear. English has so many bizarre rules and bizarre exceptions to those rules that a quibble over an apostrophe in a seldom-used pronoun is hardly shocking.

    I mean, good heavens, any language in which "I would have had to have driven if I had wished to have arrived on time" — five haves! — is a perfectly sensible sentence is clearly not a sensible language! πŸ™‚

  12. Dana says:

    I don’t see the need for delving into the history of elision (or "ellision," as somebody spelled it, probably for some very good reason). It is intuitively obvious why we need an apostrophe in "one’s." The apostrophe, for better or for worse, does indicate possession–at least, we’re accustomed to associating the two. And, oddly, we do need a non-possessive form of "one." For example, "I want a dozen doughnuts. Give me two of those chocolate-frosted ones, and…." The apostrophe helps us distinguish between a plural and a possessive.

    As for "its" versus "it’s," this ultimately makes sense, too. The source of the confusion is that the apostrophe in English isn’t just used to show possession, but also gets used when words are shortened (e.g., in "that’s the spirit!" the apostrophe stands in for the "i" in "is"). Since you can form a possessive of "it" and we can also contract "it is," we need to differentiate between the possessive and the contraction by using or eschewing the apostrophe. It’s perfectly arbitrary which form gets the apostrophe–there’s a case for either–so who knows, somebody had to flip a coin at some point. Since it IS arbitrary, we just have to memorize the rule without relying on any logical reasoning to help us remember. So the more pedantic among us suck it up and remember the rule.

    As for grammar and/or orthography being a general pain in the neck, I have always considered that the very existence of heteronyms proves that English spelling, at least, is cruel.

  13. Peter Torr says:

    Since the language geeks are out in force πŸ™‚ and using lots of big words, here’s a question for you. I know that "onomatopoeia" means essentially a word that sounds like the thing it is describing, but I seem to remember there being another word that meant "words that describe themselves." For example, "short" describes itself, but "big" does not.

    What is that word?!?

  14. Eric Lippert says:

    The words you’re looking for are "heterological" and "homological", and you’ve heard of them because at some point in your philosophy minor, someone mentioned Grelling’s Paradox to you. Grelling’s paradox is a version of Russell’s Paradox. "Heterological" means "not describing itself", ie, "long" is heterological, "polysyllabic" is homological. Is "heterological" heterological or homological?

  15. Eric Lippert says:

    > its doesn’t have an apostrophe because you wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was the possessive or a contraction (of ‘it is’). At least that’s what I was taught in school πŸ™‚

    In other words, you’re asserting that the language is the way it is because otherwise it would be hard to parse?

    That’s not how languages evolve! There are lots of hard-to-parse constructions in English — while we’re on the subject of possessives, how about "Mitzi is the owner of Fido’s sister"? Is Mitzi the sister of the guy who owns Fido, or does Mitzi own a dog, and the dog’s brother is Fido? Why hasn’t English evolved to eliminate this ambiguity?

    Rationality is occasionally a force that drives linguistic change, but the fact that we do not all speak Esperanto is a testament to the fact that it is a pretty weak force!

  16. Mike says:

    Don’t confuse language (and language evolution) with mere reading. When you say "parse," do you mean "read off the page" or do you mean "parse, er, tokens out of an oral stream"? Apostrophes have nothing to do with the latter, since you can’t hear ’em. cant hear em. Whatever.

  17. Ian Griffiths says:

    I just want to reply to Dana’s point – I almost agree but not quite.

    Yes, "one’s" makes sense, and "it’s" also makes sense, albeit for different reasons. The former because we almost always use apostrophes to indicate the genitive, and we also use apostrophes to indicate contractions.

    But I don’t see how you can claim that "its" also makes sense without delving into the history of elision. It clearly flies in the face of the first rule – it’s a genitive form that sounds like it was formed in the normal way, but for which we are required by convention to omit the apostrophe. (And worse, when you look into it a bit, you discover that it also flies in the face of the second rule!)

    How can you describe "its" as intuitively obvious? Without the historical background, it’s arbitrarily and non-intuitively different from everything else.

  18. Peter Torr says:

    Actually, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the opposite of "Heterological" is "Autological," a word for which they do not have an entry (although it is listed under "auto" as a "combining entry")

    One day I’m going to buy the full Oxford English Dictionary in print(http://www.oed.com/about/). There’s just something inexplicable cool about the idea of having all those words at your disposal.

  19. Eric Lippert says:

    You know that Microsoft has a subscription to the online OED, right? All those words ARE at your disposal.

  20. Peter Torr says:

    Interesting; I did not know that. I just like thumbing through the pages though… there’s something about it that seems special. On-line dictionaries don’t have the same allure.

    Yeah, I’m a crackpot.

  21. Marcus says:

    Confusing "its" with "it’s" is a very common mistake, but it shouldn’t be so, since once the difference is understood it’s easy to ensure that you use each once correctly.

    Just in case it’s not already abundantly clear, the examples stated in the original blog post without an apostrophe are in the genitive case, i.e. "its" = "of it" in the same way that "his" = "of him" and "hers" = "of her". Naturally, English being English, these are the exceptions to the norm, since other articles (such as "one" as given earlier) DO use an apostrophe… "one’s", "dog’s", etc.

    In contrast, "it’s" is always a contraction of "it is" just as "won’t" = "will not" and "can’t" = "cannot".

    I suspect that the source of the confusion for most people is probably that (AFAIK) no other two words in English share exactly the same letters and are pronounced the same, and yet differ in punctuation and meaning.

    Just to further confuse the issue, when using names like my own (Marcus), the genitive is formed by adding an apostrophe at the end, but NOT adding the expected "s"! Thus, if you were to refer to my post, you should say "Marcus’ post" rather than "Marcus’s post".

  22. Marcus says:

    I posted that before I meant to…. oops!

    I failed to make clear that the rule mentioned in the last paragraph only applies to names already ending in an "s" (my own name being merely one example close to home, another being the name of my old school – Skinners’ School)… and of course the "once" in the first sentence should have read "one" instead. :p

  23. Norman Diamond says:

    It seems to be rather random whether English will disambiguate any particular homonyms or not.

    "One’s" is possessive. "Ones" is plural.
    "Whose" is possessive. "Who’s" is a contraction of "who is".

    The comparison of "theirs" with "its" was incorrect. The plural of "its" is "their" with no "s". You can say "Don’t judge English by its speakers" or "Don’t judge languages by their speakers".

    Or am I wrong. The singular of "This book is theirs" might be "This book is hers" or "This book is his", but suppose the book is owned by a company? "This book is its’s" or what?

    Last and least, though not speaking for my employer, I will speak about my employer πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ :
    its’s its’s trademark.

  24. Eric Lippert says:

    My cat has a bowl; its bowl is empty; the empty bowl is its. My company has a building; its building is tall; the tall building is its. No problems there.

  25. Elbie says:

    Far be it from this one to be an expert on grammer, but this one’s opinion is that everything is as it should be.

  26. Mrs. Nicklebee says:

    And my grammar teacher dared to wonder why I struggled in her class!

    I am no grammar queen, but  I would like to suggest that the Laura Bush sentence, "The First Lady is the President of America’s wife," would be better stated another way:  The wife of the President of the United States is called the First Lady.  The First Lady is the wife of the President of the United States would also work.  When there is that much of an issue involving what is modifying which, isn’t it better to simply rewrite the sentence and try to eliminate the ambiguity?

    I’ve never heard of presidents being referred to as the President of America, fwiw.  The Canadians and Mexicans might object as they are North Americans.  We are just plain Americans but he is called the President of the United States.

    The newest comment is only more than three years old but what the hay!

  27. One does not belong in the list of I, you , he etc. because one is an indefinite pronoun like somebody, anybody, everybody, nobody, while I, you , he are personal pronouns. Possessives of indefinite pronouns get "’s": somebody’s, anybody’s, everybody’s, nobody’s, one’s, while possessives of personal pronouns do not: my, your, his, her, its, etc. Perhaps this is because the "’s" is an abbreviation of "his": the man’s book, the man his book. Then you use that for indefinite pronouns: somebody his book becomes somebody’s book, while you do not use that for personal pronouns: my book, his book, her book etc. Perhaps the same is valid for "The book is somebody’s", "The book is ours"?

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