Someone, somewhere has decided this week is National Book Week (it's part of "Declining and Defunct Media Month"– come on, don't tell me you missed VHS Day or Mix-Tape Monday?). Consequently, some other someone, somewhere has decided to spread a peculiarly pointless meme, which requires you to take up the book nearest you (I refuse to "grab" a book, as instructed – FFS have some respect, people, this is, after all, National Book Week!), turn to page 56, transcribe the fifth sentence, and then share it on social media, without revealing its source. Gosh, what wacky fun! I have no idea what numerological calculation lies behind these choices, but no doubt it is profound.
Now, there are a lot of books in this room. From where I am sitting, several hundred books are within easy reach. But, as it happens, a copy of the OUP World's Classics edition of Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne is propped against my printer – it's been there for weeks, I can't remember why – so it narrowly wins over the topmost book on the nearest pile (Bright Air Black, by David Vann) by at least six inches, horizontally, and a couple of feet, vertically. Despite having no intention of joining in the online merriment, I did do as requested, and read this:
No two birds can differ more in their notes, and that constantly, than those two that I am acquainted with; for the one has a joyous, easy, laughing note; the other a harsh loud chirp.Exciting stuff, and thank goodness nothing by, say, Thomas Bernhard or Henry James was within reach, as finding a page 56 with as many as five sentences might then have been a challenge.
But here's the thing. I have acquired many small but useful skills over the years, and a sharp proofreading eye is one of them. And, as if it had been printed in red, my eye was drawn to a sentence on the facing page (remarkably, page 57), where I read:
The redstart begins to sing: it's note is short and imperfect, but is continued till about the middle of June.It's note? With an apostrophe? Aha! Gotcha, OUP! And, look, there it was again, on the very same page: "it's wings"! But, having recently indulged myself in some pedantry on the blogs of two friends (sorry, guys...), something nagged, and I flicked through a few pages. Well, I never... In every case, it seemed, "it's" was the preferred possessive form of "it". Curious. Was this an inexplicable error, or perhaps an uncorrected idiosyncrasy of White's? Or was it a late 18th-century usage left as found? By and large, the spelling in this World's Classics edition (1965 printing of a 1789 text) seemed unremarkable, albeit with the occasional olde worlde touch. I spotted "pease" for "pea", and "dosed" for "dozed", for example, as well as the universal italicisation of proper nouns, but otherwise it was completely "modern" in appearance.
Now, you might think I'm supposed to know this stuff. It's true, I did study English Language and Literature at Oxford, but I am hardly what, in the Dan Brown view of higher education, would be called an "Oxford-trained linguist". IANAL, you might say. It seems a strange conception of higher education, to me, to regard graduates as having been "trained" in their subject, like acrobats, and that certain institutions have a distinctive mode of instruction that leaves a characteristic mark on its trainees.
Or maybe it's not. Obviously, there is a spectrum here. No doubt Bristol-trained biologists and Cardiff-trained chemists have a distinctive look and feel, right down to their graduation tattoo. But I studied what was probably the baggiest, least disciplined subject available in the 1970s, at an institution where the only "training" on offer was in those two essential life skills, how to bluff your way out of trouble, and how to appear normal when intoxicated. Not that these two capacities have not served me well. But there were no compulsory modules on "The Oxford Comma", "Speaking Proper", or "Definitive Rulings on Matters of Interest to Pedants". In fact, there was no teaching on language, as such, at all. "For that paper, gentlemen, you simply need to read some rather dull books, if you can be arsed (here is a list), otherwise I recommend the Encyclopaedia Britannica". You think I'm joking, don't you? Autres temps, autres mœurs...
So, anyway, having scored high marks in my Bluff Your Way Out Of Trouble viva, I looked up the matter of "it's v. its" on the modern equivalent of the Britannica, Wikipedia, and it confirmed what I had long suspected: originally, and logically, the possessive form of "it" was "it's", which makes perfect sense. The de-apostrophised possessive "its" only came into play once 'tis had become archaic as the contraction of "it is", and yet another someone, somewhere decided something had to be done to clarify the ensuing, sanity-threatening confusion between "it's" and, um, "it's". Confusion, naturally, has reigned ever since.
My suspicion is that they left all those it'ses "as is" (as 'twere?) in White's Natural History just to torture pedants with the repeated, tiny shocks of outrage. As for the rest of the confused and confusing business of English possessive pronouns, you can look it up for yourself, or even read a rather dull book, if you can be arsed. Personally, I feel a need to revisit the notes I made for my Looking Normal When Intoxicated exam.