For my first entry in the Grammar Corner, I’m going to address an area of widespread grammar confusion: the difference between “it’s” and “its.” Here’s a simple explanation.

 

“It’s” (with the apostrophe) is a contraction that can mean one of two things: "it is" or "it has." 

 

Example: It’s such a beautiful day today that it's been difficult to stay inside and do work. (The first "it's" means "it is" and the second means "it has.")

 

"It's" with an apostrophe never means the possessive form of "it." So if you’re writing a sentence with “it’s,” say the words “it is” when you read it aloud. If “it is” doesn’t make sense, try "it has." If your sentence still doesn't make sense, do not use the apostrophe! You probably mean the possessive form (see next paragraph).

 

“Its” (without the apostrophe) can only mean one thing: the possessive form of “it,” something belonging to or relating to the “it” in your sentence.

 

Example: I love this novel. Its ending is a total surprise! ("Its ending" means "the novel's ending.")

 

Here’s a trick for remembering that the possessive form has no apostrophe: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. None of the possessive personal pronouns has an apostrophe.

 

Let’s try some practice sentences. Read the sentences and decide if there are any errors.

 

This car is great for families. It's back seat is really roomy. ​In the second sentence, we see "it's" with an apostrophe. So let's substitute "it is" and "it has" and check if either makes sense.​ This car is great for families. It is back seat is really roomy. (Or: It has back seat is really roomy.)​ Neither "it is" nor "it has" makes sense, because we actually meant the possessive form: the car's back seat. So we should simply write "Its" with no apostrophe.

 

I think my laptop needs to be fixed. It’s hot all the time and it’s fan won’t stop running. In the second sentence, we have two uses of “it’s” with an apostrophe. So what do we do? Substitute “it is” or "it has" and see if either makes sense. I think my laptop needs to be fixed. It is hot all the time and it is fan won’t stop running. “It is hot” makes perfect sense, so we were correct to use the apostrophe there. “It is fan won’t stop running” does not make sense. Neither does "It has fan won't stop running." So we cannot use the apostrophe. We actually meant “its fan” (the laptop’s fan). Since this is the possessive form, we simply write “its.”

 

It’s so great that you volunteered for the blood drive. I think it’s going to be a big success! Again, we have two uses of “it’s” with an apostrophe, so let’s write out the contractions and check whether the sentences still make sense. It is so great that you volunteered for the blood drive. That sounds right, so the apostrophe was correct. I think it is going to be a big success! Again, that makes sense, so the apostrophe was correct here too. No errors!

I really like the new website. Its clean style is very appealing. Here we have “its” with no apostrophe, so let’s make sure we mean the possessive form of “it.” What does the “it” refer to? The new website. The new website’s clean style is very appealing. That makes sense. We did mean to use the possessive, so “its” with no apostrophe is correct.

 

At this point, you may be realizing that most possessives are formed with an apostrophe (e.g., the car's back seat, the laptop's fan), but possessive forms of the personal pronouns (my, your, his, her, its, our, their) do not use an apostrophe.

 

Is this confusing? Yes. The English language is definitely challenging. But by asking yourself one simple question, you can conquer the “it’s” vs. “its” dilemma: Do I mean “it is” or "it has"? If you don’t mean either of these phrases, do not use the apostrophe.

 

Finally, I cannot overemphasize the importance of thinking for yourself when it comes to choosing between “it’s” and “its.” I notice these words being misused all the time, so you can’t just follow the crowd if you want to get it right. Now that you know the difference between “it’s” and “its,” go forth and forge your own grammatically correct path. You can do it!

It's vs. its

© 2016–2020 Emily S. Smith

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