Sorry for the vague title. I came across this sentence while reading the book A Dash of Style:

The gracious semicolon wouldn't exist if it weren't for the failure of both the comma and period to fulfill its task.

Could you explain to me how its is correct up there? In my view it should be their.

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    The possessive its refers to the semicolon. It's saying that neither the comma nor the period can fulfill the semicolon's task. – Jim Sep 29 '13 at 19:11
  • Ahhh, it looks obvious now that you mention it. I re-read the sentence numerous times. – Zenith Sep 29 '13 at 19:14

Since two incorrect answers have now been given to this question (one removed again), I thought the correct answer that Jim already gave in a comment ought to be posted as an answer, too:

‘Its’ here is referring back to the semicolon, not to the comma or the period.

To paraphrase:

If it weren't for the fact that both the comma and the full stop were failing so badly at performing the task that the semicolon is now charged with, there would never have been a semicolon (since the comma and the full stop would have been sufficient).


The comma and the period have each a different meaning.

Paraphrasing heavily : the comma doesn't fulfil its task, and the period doesn't fulfil its task either [fulfill in USA].

"Their" instead of "its" would mean that their tasks are the same.

The surgery came to a disaster, because both the anaesthetist [anesthetist in USA] and the surgeon were incompetent in performing his task. [the two tasks are completely independent]

Moreover the nurses messed their tasks too. [supposing that the nurses accomplish exactly the same tasks and are interchangeable]

  • This is not what ‘it's’ refers to here. If it were, ‘their’ would be just as fine, but the sentence would make no sense. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 30 '13 at 8:18
  • I can't read "it's" anywhere, just "its" - where am I mistaken ? mark thorin – ex-user2728 Sep 30 '13 at 18:14
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    Damn auto-correct—I thought I’d fixed all the instances where my phone changed ‘its’ to ‘it’s’. It is of course meant to be ‘its’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 30 '13 at 20:33

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