George P. Marsh
Lectures on the English Language
(London: John Murray, 1863) pp. 277-280, 292-3.

George P. Marsh

Lecture XVIII on the English Language

Indefinite Pronoun


Introduction of the form its.

§ 11. The necessity of the double form for the more precise expression of ideas which have become distinct, has led to the development of one of the few new inflexions which modern English has evolved. In Anglo-Saxon, the personal-pronoun represented in English by he, she, it, made the genitive or possessive his for the masculine and neuter gender, her (hire) for the feminine, and so long as grammatical gender had not an invariable relation to sex, the employment of a common form for the masculine and neuter excited no feeling of incongruity. The change in the grammatical significance of gender suggested the same embarrassment with relation to the universal application of his as of whose, and when this was brought into distinct consciousness, a remedy was provided. At first, it was used as a possessive, without inflexion or a preposition, and several instances of this occur in Shakespeare, as also in Leviticus xxv. 5, of the Bible of 1611: "That which groweth of it own accord."* Its, although to be found in printed books of a somewhat earlier date, is not once used in that edition, his being in all cases but that just cited employed instead. The precise date and occasion of the first introduction of its is not ascertained, but it could not have been far from the year 1600.** I believe the earliest instances of the use of the neuter possessive yet observed are in Shakespeare, and other dramatists of that age. Most English writers continued for some time longer to employ his indiscriminately with reference to male persons or creatures, and to inanimate impersonal things. For a considerable period about the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was evidently a sense of incongruity in the application of his to objects incapable of the distinction of sex, and, at the same time, a reluctance to sanction the introduction of the new form its as a substitute. Accordingly, for the first half of that century, many of the best writers reject them both, and I think English folios can be found which do not contain a single example of either. Of it, thereof, and longer circumlocutions were preferred, or the very idea of the possessive relation was avoided altogether. Although Sir Thomas Browne, writing about 1600, sometimes has its five or six times on one page, yet few authors of an earlier date freely use this possessive, and I do not remember meeting it very frequently in any writer older than T. Heywood. Ben Jonson indeed employs its in his Works, but does not recognize it in his Grammar. It occurs rarely in Milton's prose, and not above three or four times in his poetry. Walton commonly employs his instead. Fuller has its in some of his works, in others he rejects it, and in 'Pisgah Sight of Palestine,' printed in 1650, both forms are sometimes applied to a neuter noun in the course of a single sentence.*** Sir Thomas Browne, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, employs his as a neuter, and I think that after the Restoration of 1660, scarcely any instances occur of the use of the old possessive for the newly-formed inflexion. It is somewhat singular that the neuter possessive did not appear till long after the grammatical change with respect to gender had taken place in literature, but the explanation is to be found partly in the fact the old application of genders was kept up in the spoken language long after it had become extinct in the written. Indeed, they are still applied to inanimate objects, in the same confused way, in some English provincial dialects; and, even apart from the poetical vocabulary, traces of the same practice exist among us to this day. The indiscriminate attribution of the three genders, as in Anglo-Saxon and German, or of the masculine and feminine, as in French and Italian, to inanimate objects, is philosophically a blemish, and practically a serious inconvenience, in those languages, and it is a great improvement in English that it has simplified its grammar, by rejecting so superfluous, unmeaning, and embarrassing a subtlety.

Lecture XVIII




(See endnote *)

Dr. Guest (Trans. Philol. Soc., vol. i., p. 155 seq.) makes some interesting remarks on the use of it as an indeterminate pronoun. The following examples are taken from a large number given by him, but the whole paper deserves attention of the student:


It is also used to represent any one of the three persons or of the three genders:
"T'is I, that made thy widows." Cor. iv. 4.

"Say not we brought it--
How was it we."--Cor. iv. 6.

"And heo swor by hire Godes anon in þe place þat he ne scholde mid hire be, bute it one were."****--R. Glou. 33.

"I take it, she that carries up the train
Is that same noble lady, Duchess of Norfolk------
It is; and all the rest are countesses."--Henry VIII. iv. 1.


*. ["This idiom was not unknown to our dramatists, though, like other provincial forms of speech, generally used by them when they affected a familiar or a bantering style.
"' Do child, go to it grandam child,
Give grandam kingdom, and it grandam will
Give it a plum, a cherry and a fig--
There's a good grandam!'--King John, ii, 1.

"'Your knighthood itself shall be rejected; it shall be sued for its fees to execution, and not be redeemed; it shall cheat at the twelvepenny ordinary, it knighthood for its diet all the term-time, and tell tales for it in the vacation to the hostess; or it knighthood shall do worse, take sanctuary in the Cole Harbour and fast. It shall fright all it friends with borrowing letters; and when one of the fourscore hath lent it knighthood ten shillings, it knighthood shall go to the Cranes or the Bear at the Bridge foot and be drunk in fear,' &c.--Ben Jonson, 'The Silent Woman,' ii. 3. Our editors, as might be expected, carefully insert the apostrophe--it'.

"In one case only is this idiom now admitted into our standard language: our verbal substantives in ing are still often preceded by an uninflected substantive, or by the pronoun it.

"'Though there be but one sun existing in the world, yet the idea of it being abstracted so that more substances might each agree with it, it is as much a sort, as if there were as many suns as there are stars.'--Locke.

"Our grammarians call the verbal substantive a particle when it is preceded by an uninflected substantive or pronoun; and Priestley translates the sentence, 'what is the meaning of the lady holding up her train,' into 'what is the meaning of the lady in holding up her train.' But this is mistaken criticism. The second word is always a substantive, and the genitival relation exists, whether the inflexion be expressed or not."--Dr. Guest, in Transactions of Philological Society, vol. i. pp. 281, 282.

On the use of it as Indeterminate Pronoun, see Notes and Illustrations (C). Orig. Ed.]

The use of an uninflected form as a possessive, without the preposition of, was by no means confined to the pronoun it. In Robert of Gloucester, 93, we have

"Conan þe quene cosyn, he clepude out þo stille."
And again:
"þe ich be kyng of Breteyne, þat was þin ðncle lond."

The first verse of Robert de Brunne's version of Langtoft runs thus:--

"In Saint Bede bokes writen er stories olde."
And on page 13:
"In Charlemagn courte, sire of Saint Dinys."

In the older Wycliffite version of Genesis xxix. 10, we find: "Whom whanne Jacob hadde seen, and wiste hir his unkil dowghter;" and xxx. 36: "and putte a space of thre daies weye betwix hem and his dowghtir husboond." These latter cases might, it is true, be considered compounds, like the Danish Farbror, Morbror (Fader-Broder, Moder-Broder), but this explanation will not apply to the earlier examples I have given, or to numerous instances of a later date. Thus in the Paston Letters, i. 6: "for his sou'eyn lady sake;" i. 118, "on Seint Simon day and Jude;" i. 122: "such as most have intrest in the Lord Wyllughby Goodes;" ii. 298: "my brother Roaf asent." Back to document

**. In the Fardle of Facions, 1555, p. 321, reprint of 1812, we have: "a certaine sede which groweth there of the owne accorde;" and in Holland's Pliny, i. 24, "hauing fire of the owne before." These forms are by no means uncommon. Back to document

***. "Many miles hence, this river solitarily runs on as sensible of its sad fate suddenly to fall into the Dead Sea, at Ashdoth Pisgah, where all his comfort is to have the company of two other brooks" (book ii. 58).

"Whether from the violence of winds then blowing on its stream, and angring it beyond his banks" (book ii. 59).

[In the following examples also, quoted by Dr. Guest, his represents the genitive of it:--

"This Apoplexy is, as I take it, a kind of lethergy--I have read the cause of his effects to Galen; it is a kind of deafness."--2 Pt. Hen. IV. i. 2.

"If the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land nor yet for the dunghill, but men cast it out."--Luke xiv.35.

"Some affirm that every plant has his particular fly or caterpillar, which it breeds and feeds."--Walton's Angler, i. 5.

"This rule is not so general, but that it admitteth his exceptions."--Carew. 'Transactions of Philological Society,' vol. i. p. 280.--Orig. Ed.] Back to document

****. That is, but he were alone.

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