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April 6th, 2005

A contest / what's with its? / as long as vs. so long as

by Barbara Wallraff

Let’s celebrate! My book “Your Own Words” -- about “how to outsmart the reference books and be your own language expert” -- has just been published in paperback. I’d like to give autographed copies to the five readers who do the best job of explaining in a short paragraph (absolute maximum length: 200 words) why using good English matters to them. Maybe you’d like to tackle the subject directly. Or maybe you’d like to tell me about a time in your life when using good English -- or not doing so -- made a big difference. Submissions must be postmarked or received on my Web site by a week from the day when this column was published. A few weeks from now, of course, I’ll give you a report on what everyone has said.

Toni Ortman, of Macomb, Mich., writes: “I hope you can explain something that has bothered me for the longest time! Why is there no apostrophe in the possessive form of ‘it’ -- as in ‘The book is on its shelf’? Shouldn’t it be ‘it’s shelf’? You would say ‘The book is in Mary’s locker,’ not ‘Marys locker,’ right? This bugs me, and I need to know.”

Dear Toni: Yes, it’s true, “its shelf” and “Mary’s locker” are both correct -- and “it’s shelf” and “Marys locker” are wrong. The English language didn’t use apostrophes at all until it borrowed them from French in the 16th century. They’ve been confusing us ever since. English-language printers and grammarians tried to lay down some rules for apostrophes in the 19th century. But, according to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, “the rules which they devised were arbitrary and incomplete, and it proved impossible to establish a totally logical set of principles. For example, the apostrophe was allowed to mark possession in nouns (‘girl’s’) but not in pronouns (‘hers’), and even this rule had exceptions (‘one’s’).”

Your question was why there’s no apostrophe in the possessive form of “it.” Though “its,” as a possessive, definitely doesn’t include an apostrophe, there is no logical reason why not. The closest thing to a reason I can come up with is: So we can tell those of us who are good with English from those who aren’t.

Ron Hidu, of Hampden, Maine, writes: “Could you comment on the correct form of the phrase ‘as long as’ or ‘so long as’? I have always used the former but have often heard the latter. Is there a regional aspect to the usage?”

Dear Ron: When people make a distinction between the two forms, it has to do with meaning, not where the speaker or writer is from. That is, some old prescriptive grammar books will tell you to use “as long as” in affirmative expressions (“as long as we’re talking about this,” for instance), and “so long as” in negative ones (“not so long as I am alive!”). I don’t know who came up with this rule, or why -- but most of today’s authorities on language pooh-pooh it. The consensus seems to be that “as long as” is more common, but whichever form comes naturally to you is fine.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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