Mind your language

Shakespeare didn’t need to know the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

An item on the BBC news site didn’t mean what it said: ‘The latest move is part of a wider crackdown by China to reign in the country’s fast-growing tech platforms.’ China may wish long to reign over us, but in this case it wanted to rein inactivity.

It wasn’t that the author didn’t know the difference between a horse’s rein and a monarch’s reign. But the moribund metaphor of reining in allowed a homophone to sneak in. If there was a spell-checker on the author’s computer, it would have let it through.

I find that a very common spelling mistake is leadin place of led, as in ‘Boris led the party from victory to victory’. Since the past tense of lead is automatically pronounced led by native English speakers, the spelling leadwould not occur to a writer were it not for the existence of the homophone lead, as in lead piping.

More mysterious to me is the common spelling of chose for the present tense of choose. I suppose it is a mix-up with lose, which itself becomes jumbled with loose.

These common words are more of a problem than longer, rarer words such as accommodate, cemetery and separate. To make matters worse, online spell-checkers often turn its into it’s. This is a pity, as the distinction between itsand it’sis a shibboleth: a criterion for judging whether a writer is halfway literate. In English, spelling is still taken as an indicator of education and intelligence, like imperial examinations in the Ming dynasty.

Its has a fairly recent history. The third-person neuter possessive was his until the 16th century. For 100 years or so, the spellings its or it’s were equally tolerated. Shakespeare’s printer for the First Folio (1623) used an apostrophe in Henry VI (Part 2): ‘The Cradle-babe, / Dying with mothers dugge betweene it’s lips.’ He was just as ready not to use an apostrophe for mother’s. The apostrophe originally indicated a missing letter. Unlike it’sfor it is, its never had a lost vowel to indicate.

Since predictive text programs so often guess what we are about to type, it is annoying when they try to insert errors into what we have got right on our own.

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