Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Its or it’s?

with 2 comments

Aimee washing

‘Its’ is a possessive pronoun. But don’t let that posh term put you off. ‘Its’ is simply a word that tells us something belongs to something else.

For example:

When the car goes by take its number.

This tells us the number belongs to the car.

As you get close to the house, you can see its windows need replacing.

This tells us the windows belong to the house.

The cat washed its face.

This tells us the face belongs to the cat.

Getting ‘its’ wrong

The possessive pronoun ‘its’ causes those in the know much wailing and gnashing of teeth when an apostrophe is added and it is spelt ‘it’s’. You will see this mistake innumerable times a day. Even the most august publications get it wrong. A half-page introduction to a long feature in the Guardian newspaper included the following (in an embarrassingly large point size):

Since then the United States has suffered it’s worst ever terrorist attack …

Er – that ‘it’s’ should most definitely be an ‘its’ (as the Guardian itself duly pointed out a day or so later in its ‘corrections and clarifications’ column):

Since then the United States has suffered its worst ever terrorist attack …

And look at this, a picture caption, again from the Guardian newspaper (also flagged up a few days later in the paper’s ‘corrections and clarifications’ column):

Selfridges is to allow the Metropolitan Police to install 10 cells in it’s Oxford Street store.

That, of course, should be:

Selfridges is to allow the Metropolitan Police to install 10 cells in its Oxford Street store.

And yet it’s so easy to get right…

‘It’s’ (with an apostrophe) is simply a shortened form of ‘it is’. The apostrophe replaces the second ‘i’.

So it’s obvious that you wouldn’t write:

When the car goes by take it’s number.

As that would read:

When the car goes by take it is number.

Which doesn’t make sense.

The Guardian quotes above read as:

Since then the United States has suffered it is worst ever terrorist attack

Selfridges is to allow the Metropolitan Police to install 10 cells in it is Oxford Street store

Both of which are obviously wrong.

It has

By the way, ‘it’s’ can also be the short form of ‘it has’, for example:

It’s gone the way of all things.

Written out in full, this says: 

It has gone the way of all things.

Top tip

If you have written ‘its’ or ‘it’s’ read the sentence back to yourself out loud. Say ‘its’ if you have written ‘its’ and ‘it is’ (or ‘it has’) if you have written ‘it’s’. Then you’ll know if you’ve got it right or not.

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2 Responses

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  1. Because ‘it’s’ also can translate to ‘it has’, in regards to the latter and knowing which one is which, is it a simple case of reading the sentence and realising that ‘it’s’ can’t be ‘it is’ so it has to be ‘it has’.

    Just whenever I’m reading something and the ‘it’s’ appears, I want to be sure I can differentiate between the two.

    Aky

    13/05/2011 at 3:02 am

  2. Hi, Aky — good question.

    Yes, it is simply a case of trying out both ‘it is’ and ‘it has’. (The brain usually does this automatically when reading/listening — the difficulty tends to arise when choosing whether to write “its” or “it’s”.) For example:

    It’s gone the way of all things” should obviously be read as, “It has gone the way of all things“.

    It’s far more common, though, for “it’s” to mean “it is”. So, for example, if you read “It’s far more common” as “It has far more common“, that would obviously be wrong.

    Deborah

    13/05/2011 at 9:01 am


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