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!)


De rigueur

The French imported expression de rigueur is very fashionable right now. In fact, you could say it is de rigueur. I don’t know why people can’t say ‘it’s current’ or ‘it’s fashionable’ but some people like to use French words in their English to show off a little.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to spell wrongly for English people. I’ve twice seen de rigeur this week.

The problem with that spelling is that it in fact would lead you to say ‘dee reejheur’ with a soft j sound and not a hard g sound.

In French, the g is hard if it is followed by an a or an o or a u. Gare (train station) gomme (rubber) and guerre (war). Like our gate, gorilla or gum. If the g is followed by an e, and i or a y, it is soft, like ‘juh’ in genre and girafe and gymnase. 

That doesn’t always work in English. Sure g followed by a is hard, like gallop and gallery and we go from gab to gap at the short end to gastroenterologists at the long end. G followed by o is usually hard as well. From go to the delightful gorgeousnesses. The same with g followed by u. From gum to guttersnipe.

G followed by e in English… wow. Can be hard, can be soft. From gentleman and geometry to get and geek. The same with g followed by i. It can be girl or git. Or it can be soft, like gibbering. It’s not always what comes after either. We have gibbons and we have gibberish. 

You might think it is easy for native readers, and it often is, depending on our vocabulary and experience with a word (not our ability to decode phonics) but consider all the hoo-ha about the word GIF (or gif) which most people have called gif with a hard g. The inventor of the gif says he intended it to be a soft g like gibberish. More like jif then, and definitely in line with the French.

Anyway, back to de rigueur. In French, if you want a g to be hard when it is followed by an e, you stick a u in between. So we get guepard and guêpe. I love that word guêpe. Of course, the circumflex tells you there used to be an s there. Guespe. And then the gue words were often w in English wuespe. Which gives us the word wasp. 


And so there has to be this strange little ueu combination which happens only thirteen times in English with only four key words and two that we use fairly regularly, liqueur and queue. In English, of course, we often changed the spelling to our or or at the end of words. And that sometimes depends on British English or American English. Quelle horreur! 

But at the end of it, we have to have the little weird spelling combination of ueur with de rigueur because otherwise we might as well not bother trying to look like smarty-pants French users because we have in fact made a spelling error. That’s not so good when you’re trying to look like a clever clogs. You might as well write “It’s current thought” instead.

It comes from the same root word as the word for rigour, of course. That gives a little of its origins. It’s about sticking to strict rules. In that way, it means more like required or expected or even necessary. It gives us the word rigor as in rigor mortis or how rigid we go when we die. In that way, the word doesn’t really mean fashionable (ie subject to changing whims and preferences) but strict. Like a strict custom, socially obligatory. A must for the modern times. Interestingly, in English, it is more to do with current fashions and requirements, whereas in French, it is still more to do with strictness: you find it more often referring to the budget. 

So, some examples…

Teva sandals are de rigueur footwear among travellers; they are the Panama hat of the 21st Century.

A whale tail, body kit and custom paint jobs are de rigueur improvements for the modern boy racer.

With de rigueur accusations of waste and overindulgence, modern politicians blame the politicians before them for the mess in which they find themselves.