Precision: its or it’s?


To use its or it’s… It’s one of the bizarre sticking points that I see lots of usually accurate writers using inaccurately, and yet it’s quite simple. See, I’ve used it already. It’s one of the things that REALLY tells me if someone knows how to use punctuation properly. Yet it’s so simple that when you know how to do it, you will never get it wrong!

I have a confession to make, though.

My uncle had to correct me at the age of 22. After that, I brushed up on the (quite simple) rule and never looked back.

The problem is to do with possession and omission. Whether you own stuff or or whether something is missed out.

Some apostrophes show that something is missing. They show omission. Like he’s going to be really angry when he finds out. 

I’ve missed out the letter i from he is and bunched it all up. Some people call it an apostrophe of contraction, since you are making something a little shorter. You’re contracting it.

So, didn’t, won’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, don’t, can’t, I’m, you’re, we’re, they’re, I’ve, I’d, you’d, you’ve… they all miss something out. The o is the first thing to go in ‘not’. The second thing to go is in the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’

I am = I’m, you are = you’re, he is/she is = he’s/she’s.

You get the picture.

Well, to be fair, had I continued, you’d see where it’s fits. It’s right in there with he’s and she’sThe little apostrophe shows there’s a missing i. Like in there’sCan’t stop doing it. It-apostrophe-s is ALWAYS a shortcut for it is or it has. 

Look at this diagram:

possession or omission - Plain


Some things ALWAYS go on the right, in the omission bit. The trick is to ask two questions…

1. Does something belong to it?

If yes, it goes in the possession bit. If no, it goes in the omission bit

2. Is there a letter missing?

Like this…

flowchart apostrophes - New Page

(click to enlarge…)

So when I see a little apostrophe, my first thought is “what belongs to this word?”

That’s where it gets tricky with itsBecause things belong to it. For the sake of argument, let’s talk about my car. Its length. Its height. Its colour. Its wheels. Its seats. Its windscreen. 

Well, it means the car and stuff belongs to it. Like its seatsThe seats belong to the car. So I might be tempted to stick a little apostrophe in there. It’s. It’s wheels. It’s seats. Because the apostrophe shows that something belongs to it.

And that’s where the problem lies. Because it’s only ever means it is or it has. Ever. See how it’s sitting up there in the ‘omission only’ circle on the Venn diagram?

So if I am tempted to say it’s wheels I mean it is wheels which makes no sense at all! It could mean it has wheelsbut then do you know what we do, to be clear with it has? We say ‘it has’. I wouldn’t say it’s wheels if I meant it has wheelsI’d say it has wheelsIt’s like our brain knows it’s confusing.

Because really its belongs to a group of words called possessive determiners (or possessive adjectives). They determine that something possesses stuff without an apostrophe. Like these.









Some lovely tricky ones in there as well that like to get mixed up with other stuff.

But you can see how it goes.

my shoes, your coat, his hat, her scarf, its door, our car, your house, their shoes.

And for best?

my best, your best, his best, her best, its best, our best, your best, their best. 

That gets a little more complicated.

But, the trick is to ask yourself… do I mean it is or it has? If I do, then I need an apostrophe. If I’m still not clear or certain, I go to my second line of attack… can I replace its by his or their?

If I can replace the word by his or her or their, then I don’t need an apostrophe.

And if you put an apostrophe in, like this example, MY brain reads it is and that hurts my brain a lot. I’m not the only one.

Sometimes, it isn’t just annoying, though. It can change the meaning of the whole sentence. (Swear alert!)



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