May 6, 2011

Grammar Girl: The Battle of its vs. it's vs. its'

(Update 10/26/11: for more grammar tips like this one, visit my editorial website at www.katejarmstrong.com)

To use it's or its or its': that is the question. And it's a question that commonly confuses many a would-be writer. This is the mistake I see most commonly and glaringly used in government documents, slide shows, and billboards, and one that is so small-seeming that it is frequently skipped over. But it's also a very easy rule to get on top of. Read on and I promise you'll never get it wrong again.

It's: This form is used exclusively as a contraction of 'it is' or 'it has'. When making contractions, the apostrophe takes the place of any missing letters (in this case, the 'i' in is and the 'ha' in has). That's it, folks: only use it's when you really mean it is or it has. Easy trick: read the sentence back to yourself, replacing it's with it is or it has. If the sentence no longer makes sense, you're using the wrong form.

Its: Usually, possessive pronouns are made using apostrophes, as in 'Sarah's boy toy' or 'the man's love of necrophilia'. But not with its. When you are making its possessive, you leave out the apostrophe: 'its weakness' or 'its pumpkin face'. Remember, the apostrophe-using it's is ONLY used when you mean it is or it has.

Its': Its' does not exist. We see it all the time, and we've probably all used it at some point, but there is no such thing as its'. So delete it from your memory bank.

27 comments:

  1. Well, this was interesting. In fact, IT'S downright educational! :)

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  2. I remember in high school learning about the apostrophe preceding s...it does exist when you are referring to a plural noun with possession, like "The kids' toys..." That exists right? I'm an English graduate and never got called on it.

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  3. Not preceding, I mean following...brain fart:)

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  4. Indeed it does. If you're talking about something like "kids" plural possessive, you can use " kids' " with an apostrophe after the s to show that you're talking about more than one kid. You can also use " kids's ", though it doesn't seem to be as popular in some circles.

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  5. I Adore the sitting peep in the pic!

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  6. While I appreciate your post, I didn't find it very useful because I believe that most folks just don't remember that "it's" means "it is" as opposed to the possesive use of the apostrophe; e.g., "Bill's." The hint that flipped the switch for me was to [mentally] include "its" (possessive) in the list of his/hers/ours/theirs/....its.

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    1. Thank you! I think that hint will work for me. Grammar became more important for me in graduate school and I've worked out a bunch of other common errors, but got stuck on this one.

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  7. I can see how that would be more helpful for some: thanks for sharing.

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  9. Its' doesn't exist? What if I am referring to two Cousin Its - as in "I love the Its' new glasses!"

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    1. I believe "it" can only be singular. If you mean more than one "it" possesive, use their.

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  10. Perfect. I had a moment of doubt, as a flash of an image of the vaguest of memories interrupted my writing. The unfamiliar form, " its' " popped into my head and i began to wonder whether i'd been getting it wrong all this time, simply by never using it. But a quick search on google brought me here and you set my mind at rest. Now i can delete it again from my memory bank =)

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  11. Thanks for the concise clarification, however, you lost some respect in my books when the only examples you could come up with included "boy toy" and "necrophilia"...come on...you are an educated individual...you couldn't use something else less polarizing?

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    1. What can I say: my attempts at humor aren't always for the faint of heart. Just close your eyes and insert 'well-respected male companion' and 'pleasant feelings'.

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  12. For a little more elucidation, or possibly obfuscation, here is the "Oxford Rule":
    It's is not, it isn't ain't, and it's it's, not its, if you mean it is. If you don't, it's its. Then too, it's hers. It isn't her's. It isn't our's either. It's ours, and likewise yours and theirs.

    Of course, you had better read it slowly for it to make any sense.

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  13. Thank you Kate. I have a degree in English and my coworker just asked me what form of "its" to use and sadly, I too thought that "its'" had a proper use. SHAME ON ME! But thank you for blogging this and google for finding your post for me! Regards, Matt.

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  15. Thank you for the post!! I have always thought the possessive was its'. Thank you for the error correction. I will sin no more. Thanks!

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  16. I noticed that Thomas Jefferson himself used "it's" to mean "its" as currently used! This was in the current Time magazine, which includes a facsimile of the actual handwriting of Jefferson in a draft of the Declaration of Independence! I wonder if the current "its" was changed along the way; that would make sense, since then it would be in accord with the general rule that possessives use apostrophe-s.

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  17. I disagree with your arbitrary rejection of its'.
    Your American reductionism of English has its' effects, however unintended but lead to the demise of an eloquent tongue. Compare early American authors to current day. No Edgar Allen Poe's or Mark Twain's are they?
    Modern internet English or "meme-tongue":
    "My kitteh had kittens. Its' kittens are kewl."
    See- attribution by apostrophe. Its' does exist. If fact, its qualities are so fundamental to attribution, it's imperative we insist on its' continued usage.

    PS. Read BRITISH GRAMMAR TEXTS:
    PPS I refuse to relinquish Its'- Its' makes perfect sense when applying attribution. I'm going to be an Its' renegade.

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  18. I write for a government agency. Our state is divided up into areas, and the areas are divided up by counties. I open confuse the use of its versus theirs.
    For example, when writing, "The Area completed 85 percent of its investigations..." or "Area staff completed 85 percent of their investigations..."
    So, when I am using counties, would the following be appropriate?
    "Omaha County completed 85 percent if its investigations.."
    "Omaha, Nebraska, and Lincoln counties completed 85 percent of their investigations..."
    Are those last two sentences written accurately?

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    1. The key difference there is whether the subject you're referring to is singular or plural. If you're talking about an area, you're talking about a singular entity (even if that entity holds many people within it). So, "Omaha County completed 85 percent if its investigations..." would be correct. Your second example is also correct because you are referring to several areas, plural. Therefore, you need to use 'their' to recognize that they are such.

      Hope that helps!

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    2. Thank you!

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  19. often*** not open

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