• 3-minute read
  • 7th May 2016

Word Choice: It’s vs. Its

Mistakes which are simply a matter of misplaced punctuation tend to be common. Confusions of ‘it’s’ and ‘its’, for instance, are so common that you probably don’t even notice them most of the time…

Unless you happen to be a proofreader, that is, in which case the constant mixing up of ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ may well be something that keeps you up at night.

But how can one little apostrophe make a difference? And why is this enough to give proofreaders chronic insomnia? Read on and we’ll explain.

The Problem with Apostrophes…

The reason so many people have trouble knowing whether to use ‘its’ or ‘it’s’ in any given sentence is because there are two situations in which we typically use an apostrophe:

  1. To indicate possession (e.g. ‘Mother’s Day’ is a day set aside for mothers);
  2. To indicate missing letters in a contraction (e.g. ‘I am’ becomes ‘I’m’)

If we applied both of these rules to ‘it’, we would need to add an apostrophe both when indicating that something belongs to an ‘it’, and when shortening the phrase ‘it is’.

However, in practice we only use an apostrophe when forming a contraction with ‘it’.

It’s (It is)

As with other contractions, we use an apostrophe to indicate missing letters when combining ‘it’ with ‘is’ or ‘has’ to make ‘it’s’:

It is a good day! = It’s a good day!

It has been a long day! = It’s been a long day!

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Therefore, you should only add an apostrophe to ‘it’s’ if you’re using a contraction.

Its (Possessive)

To help prevent confusion, the possessive form of ‘it’ doesn’t take an apostrophe, so when something belongs to an ‘it’ we simply write ‘its’:

The tiger stared at me from the bushes, its eyes glowing hungrily.

This is because ‘its’ is a possessive pronoun or possessive determiner. Thus, like other posessives such as ‘his’ or ‘hers’, it simply doesn’t require an apostrophe.

Photo by Claudio Gennari
If you are confronted by a tiger, stopping to think about apostrophes is probably unwise. [Photo: Claudio Gennari]

It’s or Its?

As long as you can recall the difference explained above, it’s actually quite simple to know when to use each of these terms. Remember:

It’s (contraction) = ‘It is’ or ‘It has’

Its (possessive) = ‘Belonging to it’

Keep in mind, too, that contractions are generally discouraged in formal writing, so you should try to avoid shortened terms like ‘it’s’ in university essays.

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