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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: 'Its' tops the list of endangered words

By Maggie Walter
October 19, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — If there is an endangered word list, the entry for the No. 1 spot should be "its."

This poor little three-letter word takes a regular pummeling from "their," especially when people are speaking. Many folks seem to do better when they are writing, or maybe they have the advantage of a solid copy editing crew. 

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Announcers on NPR, that bastion of national radio, can often be heard to use their when the correct word is its.

Recently, in another radio show, I heard John Tesh announce that Walmart is beefing up "their" sales staff for the holiday. He added "they" plan to hire 50,000 people for temporary positions. That's great news for the unemployed, but it's grating on the ears of language lovers.

Whenever I hear the misuse of they for it, I always think of Ray Murray, former sports editor at the Missourian and now an assistant professor of journalism and broadcasting at Oklahoma State University. While in the Missourian newsroom, Murray could often be heard as he edited sports stories, yelling in sheer frustration, "Team is an it."

Next up on the list of endangered usage should be the comma in numbers higher than 999 — as in 1,000. Repeatedly, that tiny little comma is missing. I blame it on the Otis Elevator Co. It's so tempting to insert that comma while riding in those moving box-like cages. Even the one in the Missourian building lacks the comma. It has a weight limit of 2100 lbs — note the missing comma and the missing period on pounds. Maybe it just costs too much to engrave those additional characters.

I'll admit that it took me some time to understand the their/its nuance, but I've never been confused about the comma in numbers more than 999. It's a puzzlement as to why and how that comma ever came to be misplaced.

Tom Quirk, a professor in the MU English Department, offers up the misuse of "this" as a favorite peeve. His example: "This is KOPN." What does that mean, he asks. It's a person speaking, so it should be "This is so-and-so at KOPN." 

It's never bothered me all that much, but now that Quirk has brought it to my attention, I'm starting to hear it more often. Thanks anyway, Tom. 

Maybe you have a word to add the endangered list. Feel free to share.

Missourian readers also find plenty of errors that irk them. For September's Show Me the Errors contest, there were 14 participants who submitted 46 corrections.

Joan Masters was the winner of the drawing for the September contest. She will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and the Madman." She submitted two of the 46 submitted corrections for the month. Jim Terry, a diligent participant, submitted 24 corrections.

If you spot an error in an article, you can join the contest by clicking on the first box at the end of every story to submit your suggested correction. The winner is selected from all the participants during a month. 

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. There are a few words she would like to see disappear, mainly because they are so often misused, misspelled or mispronounced. Comprise, plethora and myriad — I'm ready to say good-bye.