My native tongue is French, and though I can now communicate fluently in English, I still remember a time when I couldn’t.
Learning the language as a child, there were some things that confused me about it. The “-ed” used to identify past tense for example, or the difference between “Three” and “Tree”.
“Without using numbers, represent the number 9.”
“Dat’s easy”, the French man says, and draws three trees.
“What in the world is that?”
“Tree ‘n tree ‘n tree makes nine, no?”
Now I’m an adult, and though I speak French at home, most of my work is done in English. Still, in spite of my knowledge of this somewhat adopted language, there are parts of it that baffle me.
It took me a while to understand that “‘s” was used to indicate possession (for example, we infer from “John is holding Jane’s book.” that the book belongs to Jane), but once you understand the rule, it becomes quite simple. That is, until you find out there are exceptions.
“It” is a rebelious word, and as such it does not adhere to this possession rule. In fact, the sentence “The dog is gnawing on it’s bone.” is incorrect, and should instead be “The dog is gnawing on its bone.”, because “It’s” is really a contraction of “It has” or “It is”.
Ugh, really? But why?
Well, the good people at Word Detective provide an interesting look on the history of the word “It” and its rebellious behaviour with regards to apostrophes. They explain that prior to the 19th century, “It’s” did indeed indicate possession, and the contraction of “It is” or “It has” was actually “tis”.
Even more confusing is the explanation that the “‘s” can be used on nouns in both cases and still be correct. From the Word Detective article:
Another point to consider is that when we are using nouns (as opposed to pronouns), the “apostrophe -s” form is used quite successfully to cover both the contraction and the possessive: “Jane’s (Jane is) going to the meeting, but Bob is carrying Jane’s (belonging to Jane) notebook.”
I’ll admit that after reading up on this subject, I’m extremely tempted to declare this an 18th century site. Then again, if I did such a thing I guess I would have to adhere to all sorts of rules from a couple of centuries ago that I do not know and do not care to learn. So I guess I don’t have a choice but to learn and move on.
Still, that won’t stop me from calling this out as a Stupid English Rule!