Jan Freeman, who used to write an excellent Boston Globe column on language and now writes the equally excellent blog Throw Grammar from the Train, has a post making what should be an obvious point, but one that I have rarely seen put so explicitly:
At Grammarphobia, Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman wandered into the “confusion” quagmire and couldn’t get unstuck. A reader asked whether using its for it’s was a grammatical error or a spelling error; here’s their answer,* with my objections:
A: On a superficial level, this qualifies as both a punctuation error and a spelling error.
But on a deeper level, it’s a grammatical error, because it represents a failure to distinguish between (1) the possessive pronoun and (2) the contraction.
What “deeper level”? You’re saying the writer doesn’t know the difference between the actual words its and it’s? That he mistakenly writes “it’s tires are flat” because he thinks it’s OK to say “it is tires are flat”? Of course you don’t think that. Sometimes a mixup — reign in for rein in — could be either a simple spelling goof or a genuine confusion (resulting in an eggcornish reinterpretation of the metaphor). Not so with its and it’s. We could drop the apostrophe entirely and we’d still know which was which, because in fact we don’t confuse them grammatically.
And here’s the footnote attached to “answer*” above:
*I actually first wrote “here’s there answer,” though I caught it immediately. And no, I am not confused about the difference between their and there.
Brava! (Of course, the people who make such claims aren’t actually making intellectual points, they’re just slinging whatever mud comes to hand to express their revulsion—which reminds me of the nasty verbal tics in the later reviews of Pauline Kael, so memorably analyzed by the austerely eloquent Renata Adler in this classic 1980 takedown, which everybody who cared about movies read and argued about back in that time when people actually cared about movies.)