I don’t know how I’ve missed the grandaddy of lexical vexations for so long, so thank you, Susan, for requesting this post.
its the possessive form of the pronoun it.
it’s a contraction of the words it and is or it and has.
Words in the Wild: It’s my intention to see to it that every one of those toys ends up back in its place.
This vexation is a classic case of mistaken identity, and if you’re prone to mixing these two words up, you’re in fine company. I’d wager that everyone who’s ever written in English has made this mistake at some point, if not often.
There are 3 facts that conspire to confuse us:
- these words sound identical,
- we seldom if ever need the apostophe to tell us which meaning is intended, and
- current grammar rules suggest that both of these words ought to have the apostrophe.
Yes, both words cry out for an apostrophe, but only one gets to have it. English language rules say that you should add an apostrophe to make up for missing letters in a contraction. So by that logic it + is should equal it’s, right?
And the rule for creating possessives says that adding ’s to a word makes it possessive, and by that logic the object belonging to it should be it’s object, right?
But somewhere along the way it was decided that their weren’t enough apostrophes lying around for the both of them. One would have to do without. And the loser was…the possessive its. (Seems kind of odd that the possessive lost possession, doesn’t it?)
If you’re checking your work or someone else’s, and you want to be sure you’ve got these right, try saying “it is” or “it has” every time you see either one of these words. If “it is” works, toss in that apostrophe; if it doesn’t work, leave it out.
Those of you in academia are in luck—since contractions are frowned upon in scholarly writing, you shouldn’t see any it’ses at all. Except—yes there’s always got to be an exception, right?—when you’re directly quoting someone who has written it’s.
Now that you’ve mastered these pesky words, I’m sure you want to know some more about the apostrophe’s spotted history. For an illuminating article on the apostrophe’s origins and its dubious helpfulness, head on over to Sesquiotica.
Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.