A Grammatical Aside

A Grammatical Aside

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I 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."


Wait 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


I 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.)


What 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • You know that Microsoft has a subscription to the online OED, right? All those words ARE at your disposal.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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
  • 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 :-) :-) : its's its's trademark.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!

  • 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"?

  • See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_genitive for a discussion of the "his genitive".

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