Word Court


S. Smith, of Alameda, California, writes, "When I was a student teacher in a middle school, my master teacher's pet peeve was the popular use (or misuse) of it's as a contraction of it has. I see this usage daily: 'It's been a tough day' or 'It's been a pleasure meeting you.' It sounds wrong to me, too. Is it?"

No—at least not when has is used as an auxiliary verb (compare "My car needs a tune-up. It's trouble climbing hills" and "It's always had trouble climbing hills"). And you'll want to keep in mind that since it's can be a contraction of either it is or it has, in some contexts it's will be annoyingly ambiguous.

Sad to say, these days the distinction between it's, the contraction, and its, a possessive, needs defending. "My car ran out of gas and one of its tires went flat—it's completely ruined my day." Surely the reason this distinction gives people trouble is that the possessives of pronouns don't use apostrophes (its), whereas the possessives of nouns do (car's).

Where the superstition got started that it's is legitimately a contraction only of it is is unclear to me, but I suspect that the fault may lie with usage guides so concerned to draw a clear distinction between it's and its that they forget to mention that it's can mean it has as well as it is. And sometimes usage guides object to the overuse of contractions generally. But I've never seen one that actually forbids the use of it's as a contraction of it has. Your master teacher was being what's called overnice.

Ann Howland, of Middlesex, Vermont, writes, "I wonder if anyone has ever asked you to discuss the rather unfortunate use of the word bred. For example, I recently read on a novel's jacket that the author had been born and bred in North Carolina. I am aware that one of the meanings of this word is 'raised' or 'nurtured.' However, every time I have encountered this usage, it is within the context of describing a woman's background, never a man's, so I can't shake the initial connotation that comes to my mind: that the woman was literally bred, as if she were a heifer. Maybe you can shed some light on how this use of this word evolved and then perhaps conjure up a reason for its persistence."

Will you feel better to learn that the word is not only, or even primarily, applied to females? The week before I wrote this, The Orlando Sentinel called a male filmmaker "Brooklyn-born, Queens-bred," the Los Angeles Times called an all-male quintet "Los Angeles-based, Omaha-bred," and The Village Voice referred to a legal case as having "bred numerous law-review essays."

What's more, if you're going to reject as unseemly any word that can possibly have a whiff of the barnyard about it—well, there go have and take and cover and reproduction and stud earrings and heaven only knows what else. Bred is just a derivative of the verb breed. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a thousand-year-old meaning of this verb is "Said of a female parent: To cherish (brood) in the womb or egg; to bring (offspring) forward from the germ to the birth; to hatch (young birds) from the egg; to produce (offspring, children)." Several centuries old is the meaning "to train up to a state of physical or mental development"; the OED explains that this sense has been "evidently transferred" from the meaning just cited, "the young creature being viewed as a rude germ to be developed by nurture." A supporting citation from 1570 reads, "One of the best Scholers that euer S. Johns Colledge bred." A reason, then, to continue using bred with the meaning "brought up" or "trained" is that well-bred people have been using it that way for many generations.

Richard Cecil, of San Francisco, writes, "I often see the word jell in print, used in the context of a group's chemistry having jelled or a team having jelled. However, I am also seeing it spelled gel. For example, one recent Sunday evening a Washingtonpost.com story about an NFL game bore the headline 'Washington's Offense Finally Jells in the Second Half'; the next morning the headline for the same story read 'Offense Gels as Washington Rolls to Second Win.' Who had it right—the night shift or the Monday-morning crew?"

It's a rare Monday-morning quarterback who gets it wrong, but evidently you've found one who did. Though the two words share an etymology, jell is standard in figurative senses like the ones you describe.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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