Monday, April 8, 2013


For those of us writers of English who were lucky enough to grow up with this language  (nothing to be taken for granted, because English is one of the very hardest languages to write properly if you are coming to it as your second language), most of the rules of grammar are entirely intuitive. Some rules, though, make sense only to etymologists and philologists, and dog the rest of us for life.

Case in point: I have never been able to keep the “restrictive” vs. “non-restrictive” clause terminology straight. One is the “which” clause (not essential to the meaning of the sentence, thus needing commas to set it off), and one is the “that” clause (essential to sentence meaning, thus needing no commas); but as much I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to make any logical connection between these clauses and restriction. What is restricting what? In practice I can write the clauses correctly, but as a teacher I am often called upon to explain underlying grammar rules, and it’s embarrassing not to know. So, I danced the halls of my university (in my mind, at least) when I cracked open the new grammar style book our department adopted this year and found that the words “restrictive” and “non-restrictive” were not even in the index. The terms had been replaced with the descriptors I’d always been using for those clauses: essential and non-essential.

I tell this story to my students now whenever I see that old shame begin to rise up into their cheeks—that grammar guilt we all carry around like original sin. I tell them that our language is still changing, that the terms applied are arbitrary, and that nobody gets grammar right all the time. PhDs make errors in pronoun case and agreement regularly at faculty meetings, I assure them. This is because the evolution of our language has left us with a lot of rules that just aren’t logical. Which brings me to it’s vs its, a common error in all my College Composition classes.

Why do students have such a hard time with these teeny words? Well, it might be because the grammar rules that students know intuitively conflict with what we tell them to do with these words. Take this sentence, for instance:

Look at the peacock—it’s preening its shiny feathers.

Writers of English know to use an apostrophe for contractions and possession, so…hm, we have both in this sentence, but we only use an apostrophe for the contraction. While those philologists and etymologists have lively debates over the reason for this anomaly, we teachers are stuck with explaining the problem away as an exception for “possessive pronouns,” a term that young students are probably not ready for and older students have long forgotten. So, what do you do?

Literally, what do you do? How do you teach it’s vs its to young writers in your lives? Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments!

Personally, I’m thinking of getting a cheery-looking rubber stamp made that says something like: It’s only ever means it is. It may not solve the problem, but it might be satisfying to slap that into the margin instead of scribbling the same edit over and over.

Common Core English Language Standards connections:

L.1.1d. Use personal, possessive, and indefinite pronouns….
L.2.2c. Use an apostrophe to form contractions and frequently occurring possessives.
L.3.1a. Explain function of nouns, pronouns…and their functions in particular sentences.
L.4.1g. Correctly use frequently confused words….

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