Its amazing!

“When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

Exodus 1:16, NIV

Source: Cake Wrecks: Curbing Their Enthusiasm

Is this an error? Why is it funny? Is this what Rich refers to as a framing issue? Or is this acceptable in certain dialects of English?

These two English words are very often used incorrectly by native speakers. Its important that you understand the difference.

It’s vs Its – e Learn English Language

Did you spot the error? (Actually, I introduced it myself)

Here are some interesting lexicostatistics:

Occurrences in the NIV Bible

A 1,502
B 19
C 731

Can you identify which of the following match up?

  1. It’s
  2. Its
  3. It is

Answer: 1. B, 2. C, 3. A

Why the big difference between A and B?

Thinking about that cake again I’m struck by how subtle the difference is between “It’s a boy!” and “It is a boy” So in thinking about Bible translation I’m suddenly (or should I say ‘suddenly I am’) struck by how subtle language is and how likely it is that “simple” words in Greek or Hebrew might be misunderstood.

P.S. Yes, I intentionally misspelled the title of this post! ;-)

17 Comments

  1. Dannii Willis
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    I don’t really care about punctuation rules (which have basically nothing to do with actual grammar.) In this case that possessive pronouns don’t have apostrophes is a senseless irregularity, and anyone who gets it “wrong” is just using their language as sensibly as they can. Whoever made up this silly rule deserves several weeks in purgatory.

    Why the difference between A and B? It can only be because the NIV translation team didn’t understand English prosody.

  2. Posted January 14, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Your post, it’s very provoking (of thoughts, that is), David. I think there is so much that we miss in translation because we don’t know the biblical languages and, for sure, because we don’t write English well enough in translations to mine its riches which can match the riches of the biblical languages.

    I got back home tonight from Alaska. Added a few extra days with my father who is grieving the loss of Mom, well, as much as he can remember.

  3. Posted January 14, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Danni, my wife refuses to concede that it’s can be used at all in formal writing. I am with you and think that the opening quote from Exodus would sound better with “it’s.”

    Wayne, you are welcome to be at home.

  4. Posted January 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    David: Thanks for an engaging way of revisiting the issues of contractions and punctuation.

    There’s also a big difference between “there’s” and “there is.”

    In general, when linguistic forms compete, the shortest possible one wins out. This is why we get “it’s” for “it is,” “there’s” for “there is” (and “there has” — as in “there’s got to be a reason” — and others), etc., and why the longer forms often sound stilted. This “less is more” rule is one on the more robust results of modern linguistics, and it seems to apply to every language: English (see here for some thoughts of mine), Greek (Mike Aubrey has a discussion here), Hebrew, etc.

    And I think that even speakers who eschew contractions in formal writing still contract words when they read aloud.

    Wayne: Welcome home.

  5. Mike Sangrey
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    There’s more to what is going on than simple contraction of it is to it’s.

    For example, David’s last clause is:
    how likely it is that “simple” words in Greek or Hebrew might be misunderstood.

    Notice how you can not change that to say:
    how likely it’s that “simple” words in Greek or Hebrew might be misunderstood.

    Fascinating, is it not? Or should that, perhaps, be: fascinating, isn’t it?

    I think about stuff like this all the time. LOL.

  6. Mike Sangrey
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    By the way, perhaps there was a story behind the cake. Perhaps there was a months long argument between two doctors who were married to each other. She was pregnant. After several ultrasounds, and arguments, the verdict was controversial. One saying, “Boy!!”, the other saying “Girl!!” “Boy!” “Girl!” “Boy!” “Girl!” The winner bought (or made) the cake.

    So, you see, it is about framing.

    Which is a statement, of course, that is much more clear concerning my intent than, “it’s about framing.” It just is. It is about framing.

    The framing of the prototypical birth congratulations cake makes the above picture funny. However, with sufficient contextual information to change the frame, we understand the real meaning. Authors understand this and write accordingly. Good authors are very good at it.

    In other words, if we better understood the information flow within the text (which is a macro level of understanding), we would be much better at understanding the subtleties of the smaller linguistic units.

    When reading commentaries there are statements like, “Here Paul goes off on a tangent” or “here John is having a senior moment.” When you read such statements your seeing evidence of a misunderstanding of information flow. Understand how the original statement is not “going off on a tangent”, and you’ve unlocked the original intent.

  7. Mike Sangrey
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, I meant “you’re seeing evidence…”, not “your seeing evidence.” But, that a topic for another post.

    Welcome home Wayne. May you have much peace. Your father, too. And your whole family.

  8. Posted January 15, 2010 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    I formally request that we likewise come up with contraction rules for the past tense (or have we?). I want to know the proper contraction for “it was.” “‘Twas,” sadly, is too archaic. The pronounced contraction used today just sounds odd: “iwwas”

  9. iverlarsen
    Posted January 15, 2010 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    As a non-native speaker of English may I ask:

    Is the use of “it is” more old fashioned and formal than “it’s”?

    What would be the statistics for the Message? God’s Word does use “it’s” in Exodus 1:16, but this translation is willing to use modern and less formal language.

    Is the longer form as “It is a boy” a sufficient clue to indicate that the word “is” is to be stressed? I don’t see enoough context for the birthday cake, but if my friend asked me, “Is it a boy” I might well respond, “Yes, it is a boy! I was hoping it would be.” (Hypothetical sitatution.)

    By the way, how old must a baby be, before it becomes a he? Or maybe it is not a matter of age, but of previous context?
    Have you seen the baby? He is so beautiful.

    My English teacher in school told us: English is an easy language to learn to communicate in, but a difficult language to master.

    Iver

  10. Posted January 15, 2010 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Iver asked:

    By the way, how old must a baby be, before it becomes a he? Or maybe it is not a matter of age, but of previous context?

    Iver, I *think* it has to do with whether or not the speaker knows the gender of the baby, or has not known its (!) gender until the time of speaking, something like that. We do the same with “it” for animals for which we do not know gender.

  11. Posted January 15, 2010 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Gary asked:

    I formally request that we likewise come up with contraction rules for the past tense (or have we?). I want to know the proper contraction for “it was.”

    I think the contraction rules for past tense are similar to those for present tense. The “weaker” (less stressed) word gets elided (contracted). So, we have present tense “I’ve” from “I have” and “I’d” from “I had”.

    I don’t know if there is a contracted form for “I was” but it might be “I’s”. I might say that when speaking colloquially and quickly.

  12. Dannii Willis
    Posted January 15, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Iver, “it is” might be more formal, but I suspect that’s because increased formality often = decreased naturalness (because they don’t know a real formal register and instead just want to sound like it).

    Is the longer form as “It is a boy” a sufficient clue to indicate that the word “is” is to be stressed? I don’t see enoough context for the birthday cake, but if my friend asked me, “Is it a boy” I might well respond, “Yes, it is a boy! I was hoping it would be.” (Hypothetical sitatution.)

    That still feels unnatural to me. I think a more natural situation would be: “That couldn’t possibly be a boy, listen to her go on and on about her dolls!” / “No, it is a boy! I saw him being born!”

    I suspect the full form wouldn’t be used when merely answering a question, but only when countering some other statement.

    I don’t know about babies… I always feel weird using “it” for one but sometimes there’s little alternative. A lot of people apparently use the word baby without any article, which seems bizarre to me. Go to a book store and you’ll see “Baby’s first book” but not “A/Your baby’s first book”.

    Wayne, I don’t think so… at least I’d never say it. I think the /w/ is actually the strongest sound there, it has a very different place of articulation, compared to the soft glottal /h/. I personally say it like [əwz].

  13. Posted January 15, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Dannii ended:

    Wayne, I don’t think so… at least I’d never say it. I think the /w/ is actually the strongest sound there, it has a very different place of articulation, compared to the soft glottal /h/. I personally say it like [əwz].

    G’day Dannii. Maybe ittsa a dialect difference. My colloquial pronunciation is [áyəz] with possibly (not sure) a slight bilabial transition between the stressed diphthong and following unstressed syllable.

  14. Dru
    Posted January 15, 2010 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Iver, as a native English speaker but of English not American English, and there may be a difference – English written usage is sometimes more formal than American:-

    ‘It’s’ is less formal than ‘it is’.
    I would tend to write ‘it is’ even when I would read it aloud as ‘it’s’.
    I am more likely to write ‘it’s’ in an email than in a letter or a report, even I was going to send the letter or report to someone electronically.
    I had a short moment of mental exercise in the previous sentence whether to write ‘I am’ rather than I’m’.
    God in scripture would, to me, always say ‘I am’ rather than I’m.

    It would be difficult to guess without knowing context what, if anything, is being conveyed by the choice of words on the cake.

    English has next to no grammatical gender. So getting gender wrong is making a statement. It is not ungrammatical for a baby to be ‘it’. However, referring to a person as ‘it’ normally conveys the message that they are not a person. So one should always be careful to try and avoid referring to a baby as ‘it’, and particularly not when his or her mother is present. If you do not know what gender a baby is, it is better to try and avoid having to use a pronoun at all.

    This is not a matter of age. It takes effect from birth. It is only unhazardous to use ‘it’ if the child is still a foetus.

    Referring to a baby as ‘baby’ with no article is mawkish even on the part of the baby’s mother.

    I don’t think in RP one would ever elide any pronoun with ‘was’ or ‘were’. ‘T’was’ and ‘t’were’ are archaic. On the other hand ‘int’ as a further contraction of ‘isn’t’ , and ‘innit’ or ‘intit’ for ‘isn’t it’ are widespread in dialect, even though they are counter-markers as far as RP is concerned.

  15. Dru
    Posted January 16, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Iver, I’ve been thinking a bit further about this overnight.

    I don’t know whether this is a universal or not, but the blue edging round the icing is also a clear signal to English speakers. If the baby had been a girl, the decoration would have been pink. Although this is not directly linguistic, does the same apply in other linguistic communities? Does this apply in your first language? To all the English speaking readers , this would have been so obvious, that they will not have noticed it. It will probably not have occurred to us that we do not know whether this a universal or not.

    It also means two other things. First that the words are not necessary to convey the statement, and second, therefore, that the blue icing is decorating the words, rather than that the words are explaining the icing.

    Translators of languages that are no longer spoken, do not necessarily know what all the assumptions were of those who were native speakers of those languages.

    Then, I thought, in ‘it’s a boy’ or for that matter ‘it is a boy’, is the pronoun actually representing the noun in the same way as it would do in, say, the sentence, ‘it has filled its nappy (English)/diaper(American)?

    I think the answer is, No. I think in ‘It’s a …..’, idiomatically, this is a way of expressing an exclamation. On the other hand, much of the debate above is about whether ‘it’s a …. ‘ is linguistically the same or different from ‘it is a …..’. ‘It is a …. ‘ does not express exclamation very well. I.e. is the choice of ‘it is’ in this context, an error, making a different statement, or simply letting the world know that a child has the good or ill fortune to have been born to two pedants. The trouble is, that none of us know.

    One can also ask two other questions? First, why isn’t the phrase on the cake ‘he’s a boy’, or ‘he is a boy’. Second, since both those phrases are grammatically and factually correct, why do they both sound slightly odd?

  16. iverlarsen
    Posted January 16, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Dru,

    To answer your question, yes, pink is the colour for a baby girl and light blue is the colour for a baby boy in Danish culture. I am sure it is not universal, but how many Western cultures it applies to, I don’t know.
    In my thinking, if you say “It’s a boy”, the stress has to come on “boy”, but in “It is a boy”, it is possible to put the stress on “is”.
    I think you are right that the “It” in “It’s a boy” is different from the “it” in “It has filled its nappy”. At least that is the case in the corresponding sentences in Danish. The first “It” is a semantically empty filler which anticipates the noun “boy”, whereas the second “it” is a deictic pronoun referring to an already known entity. I would think “he/she has filled his/her nappy” would be more normal, since the one who says this would know whether “it” is a boy or girl.
    “He’s a boy” has too much redundant information.

  17. Posted January 16, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve heard that sometime in the not so distant past boys were red and girls were blue.

    Surely there must be a rule for the use of “it’s” in English. Phonology is not my thing and I suspect that’s where the answer lies.

    Here’s an extended explanation of the use of the apostrophe: http://www1.american.edu/tesol/wpkernodlecavella.pdf
    HT Grammar Girl: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/apostrophe-1.aspx

    This doesn’t address the difference between it is and it’s but it does show the unstable history of the dreaded apostrophe.

    By the way, Mike Aubrey recently stated on his blog that he refuses to differentiate between “its” and “it’s.”


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