Its Academic, Or Is It?

If you're 35 years or older, you probably identify a common grammatical error in the heading on this page. Younger than that and, well, you likely have another opinion: "Its all relative"--except, of course, for the apostrophe. Unfortunately, age appears to be the demarcation here. For those in the older group, youth has already won the battle.

I've been keeping a list of places where its is misused: newspapers, magazines, op-eds in major publications and, more recently, wall texts in museums. A few weeks ago I encountered the error in a book title: "St. Simons: A Summary of It's History," by R. Edwin and Mary A. Green. My list is getting longer and longer.

Does it even matter that the apostrophe is going the way of the stop sign and the directional signal in our society? Does punctuation count any longer? Are my complaints the ramblings of an old goat who's taught English for too many years?

What's the big deal, anyway? Who cares whether it's its or it's? Editors don't seem to know when the apostrophe's necessary. (One of them confessed to me that people have always been confused about the apostrophe-better just get rid of it.) My university undergraduates are clearly befuddled by the correct usage. Too many graduate applications--especially those of students aspiring to be creative writers--provide no clue that the writer understands when an apostrophe is required. Even some of my colleagues are confused by this ugglesome contraction.

How can a three-letter word be so disarming, so capable of separating the men from the boys? Or the women from the girl's? When in doubt use it both ways, as in a recent advertisement hyping improved SAT, GRE and LSAT scores: "Kaplan locations all over the U.S. are offering full-length exams just like the actual tests. It's a great way to test your skills and get a practice score without the risk of your score being reported to schools. And now, for a limited time only, its absolutely free!"

And now, students, which one of the above spellings of the I word is correct: (a) the first, (b) the second, (c) both or (d) neither? Any wonder why Educational Testing Services had to add 100 points to the revised SAT exams?

It's been my recent experience that the apostrophe hasn't actually exited common usage; it's simply migrated somewhere later in the sentence. Hence, "Shes lost her marble's" has become the preferred use of this irritating snippet of punctuation in current American writing. "Hes not lost his hat; hes lost his brains'." "Theres gold in them there hill's." Or "It was the best of times' and the worst of time's." The latter, of course, is from Charles Dicken's "A Tale of Two Cities'." Or is it Charle's Dickens?

Where will this end? Virtual apostrophe's? At times I wonder if all those missing apostrophes are floating somewhere in outer space. Don't they have to be somewhere, if--as some philosophers tell us--nothing is ever lost? Lately, I've seen the dirty three-letter word even punctuated as its'.

What's next?

Its? 'Its?

How complicated can this be? How difficult is it to teach a sixth grader how to punctuate correctly?

Heaven knows I've tried to figure it out, agonized about it for years. I remember being dismayed nearly 20 years ago when I was walking around the neighborhood and discovered an enormous stack of books that someone had put out on the curb, free for the taking. Most of the titles were forgettable; hence the reason they'd been left for scavengers or the next trash pickup. However, mixed among the flotsam and jetsam was a brand-new hardback collegiate dictionary. How could this be, I asked myself?. Could someone have too many dictionaries? I think the ideal would be one in every room.

Someone was sending me a signal. If words are unimportant, punctuation is something even more lowly. Why worry about such quodlibets? When was the last time anyone even noticed? Certainly, no one at Touchstone Books caught the errors in a recent ad for "Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls," by Myra and David Sadker. A testimonial for the book reads as follows: "Reader's will be stunned at the overwhelming evidence of sexism the author's provide." You bet, and the blurb writers' lack of grammatical correctness.

If editors at publishing houses can't catch these errors, who can? Errors common to advertising copy have already spread into the books themselves. I dread walking into a bookstore a decade from now and encountering the covers of classics edited by a new generation of apostrophe-challenged editors: "Father's and Sons'," "The Brothers' Karamazov," "The Adventure's of Huckleberry Finn," "The Postman Allay's Ring's Twice," "A Midsummers' Night Dream." (Who's wood's these are I think know . . .)

The apostrophe is dead because reading is dead. Notice that I didn't say "The apostrophe's dead because reading's dead." That's far too complex an alteration. When in doubt simply write out the full sentence, carefully avoiding all possessives and contradictions. Soon, no one will be certain about grammatical usage anyway. Computers will come without an apostrophe key. Why bother about errors on the Internet? E-mail messages are often so badly written they make no sense. Fortunately, they get erased almost immediately. Everything passes too quickly.

Last week I went to a lamp store to purchase two new floor lamps for our living room: five rooms of lamps and hundreds of styles--except for one minor problem. Not one lamp was designed for reading. Virtually all the lamps illuminated the ceiling; all were designed for television addicts, not readers. So how is one supposed to read TV Guide? The place was so dark (was I expected to hold my book up to the ceiling?) I could hardly find my way out. And speaking of TV, what's the plural: TVs or TV's?

Time to stop this grumbling. Thing's fall apart. If I start making a list only of the times the apostrophe is used properly, I won't even have to worry about it. I can already hear you say, "Your kidding."