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Monday, December 15, 2008

Harrisburg HS: It's Time to Proofread Its Plaque!

Just in case you think you haven't heard enough reasons to keep Madison from giving up its Mundt Debate Tournament to Harrisburg, it's time to offer a battle cry to energize Madison's silent but deadly grammarian base: Harrisburg can't punctuate!

I was at Harrisburg High School Saturday, judging at the season's first Central Forensic Conference debate tournament, ably hosted by its second-year head coach Dr. Kip McKee and his efficient assistant Stefanie Gnirk (originally from Burke!). Kip, Stefanie, and their team* made a little foresnics history, bringing a debate tournament to Harrisburg for the first time in decades. Good work, Tigers!

I strolled through the high school and spotted its dedication plaque. Bing bing bing! Out from its bronze popped three instances of egregiously incorrect punctuation, three instances of its'.

To review:
--- its is a possessive pronoun, referring to something that belongs to it. "The dog is looking for its bone."
--- it's is a contraction for it is. "It's cold outside!" (As a contraction, its informality would preclude its ever appearing in a formal setting like a dedication plaque.)

It's not just a simple error: its egregiousness is multi-layered:
  1. It's easy to mix up its and it's, but its' simply doesn't exist. There is no realistic situation I can think of in which its' makes any sense at all. (Readers, there's another challenge for you!)
  2. It's a plaque. It's permanent. My blog has its share of errors, but it's easy to fix them (especially when my readers so quickly and gleefully point them out). If you're putting something in bronze, you proofread it. You get someone else to proofread it. The both of you go get a third person and proofread it.
  3. It's a school. Proofreaders should have been easy to find—ask the English teachers! Ask any teacher! Even the P.E. teacher has been to college; he/she should be able to explain to you the apostrophe and its proper usage.
To Harrisburg's credit, someone has tried to fix one of the erroneous apostrophes. Harrisburg must have its own Young Grammarians Underground, brave students brushing their backpacks or bumping their iPods against those apostrophes as they stroll casually by, trying to wear the plaque down into correctness (much as their teachers do to the students in class each day). Keep at it, kids—grammar is a noble cause!

So now we know the reason Harrisburg is building a new high school just six years after dedicating its current building. It's not burgeoning enrollment. It's the district's deep shame at its own faulty punctuation. (Tiger boosters, call Superintendent Holbeck, remind him to check the new plaque!)

Right. Probably not enough to disqualify Harrisburg from hosting a big debate tournament... but it's worth a shot!

*P.S.: A quick check of National Forensic League records finds that the Harrisburg speech team, in its second year of existence, has 26 registered members. The Madison speech team, which has been in existence since the founding of the NFL in 1926, has 20 registered members. Harrisburg has more apostrophes and more debaters! Arrgghh! Fire up, Bulldogs! It's time to catch up!


  1. Nothing a little black epoxy paint won't solve.

  2. I can't believe that this particular mistake is on a plaque in a school run by educators. Who proofread this? A third grader? I remember clearly learning about this at least by sixth grade if not before.

    Lesson for Harrisburg educators: If you can substitute the words "it is" for its in a sentence, there is an apostrophe. If you can't, then no apostrophe. Kinda basic elementary stuff.

    And if the printers made the error, I would never hang said plaque in a school until the printers corrected their error.

    This is so lame it's (Notice, Harrisburg, the apostrophe correctly placed here!) hilarious!

  3. I have to laugh at this one, especially as I just taught a Sophomore grammar lesson about this very topic.

  4. Astonishing that such an obvious error would make it into brass. I see these types of errors all over the internet, but hope that more formal settings apply better quality control. While working alone makes it challenging to eliminate all our writing errors, every content-provider owes his or her readers a best effort. I write a blog to help people fix their writing problems: Writing Problems Explained. Please take a look and recommend it to content providers with chronic writing problems.


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