Proper English: It’s vs. its

13 03 2007

The words its and it’s are often confused and misused. But the rules are quite simple.

One word, its, is the possessive form of the word it. This word is an adjective (some might want to call it a possessive pronoun, but it acts like an adjective). Use this form when indicating ownership to a previously specified subject. Some examples: “The movie had its moments, but mostly I was bored.” “The mangy dog licked its mud-covered privates noisily.” “While outwardly expressing shock at the profanity in her student’s essay, Ms. Hannerty was secretly quite proud of its ingenuity.”

The other word, it’s, is usually a contraction of the phrase it is, and is thus a combination of a noun (subject) and verb. Some examples: “It’s a small world, after all.” “Damn it, Jim, it’s just a machine!” “I can’t tell if the timer is working properly, but it’s quite apparent that this bomb is unstable. Jump!”

It’s can also be a contraction of it has, where the word has is part of a verb in the present perfect tense. Example: “It has been a bloodbath” could also be phrased “It’s been a bloodbath.”

We’ll get into other pronouns, as well as the use of apostrophes, another time.


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7 responses

16 10 2009
ros balane

it’s sometimes too annoying when to use it’/its when you’re in a hurry to beat your deadline !

18 01 2011
JB

random question, if i was writing a paper and i wanted to put an example of something would it be inproper english if i put” For example: …”. also if it’s not, should i capitalize the first word after the colon? thankyou!

18 01 2011
Gochi Sanfrid

@JB – I’m not sure that answering your particular questions would solve what is apparently a much larger lack of knowledge in the area of grammar, but here’s a start: A sentence starting with “For example” would generally use a comma, followed by lower case. However, a colon also would probably be acceptable, still followed by lower case. Keep studying!

@ros – it might be annoying, but it’s worth the effort once you think about how some of your readers can be distracted from your topic by little nit-picky errors. Practice makes perfect.

1 02 2012
Ryan Thomas

One of the best explanations that I have read thus far! For some reason, I had the meaning of the two forms reversed in my mind. I have a question, when would you use ( its’ ) in relation to the other two forms?

1 02 2012
Gochi Sanfrid

Never. The s’ ending designates a plural possessive, and “it” is never plural. :)

15 11 2012
Chrispy

I thought an apostrophe showed possesion, I’m not trying to be smart, but the “its”-“it’s” thing has me unsure :-(
I understand the “it is” contraction, but I thought “it’s” also showed possesion. Why does it for everything else?

15 11 2012
Gochi Sanfrid

Personal pronouns in English do not use apostrophes for their possessive forms (his, hers, its, yours, ours, theirs). Related: whose.

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