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Its vs. It’s

Would you like to know the #1 Grammar Error?
The word involved is small and it’s contained in this sentence.

That’s right: its vs. it’s
Yet the two rules are actually quite easy to remember.

Rule 1: When you mean it is or it has, use an apostrophe.

It’s a nice day.
It’s your right to refuse the invitation.
It’s been great getting to know you.

Rule 2: When you are using its as a possessive, don’t use the apostrophe.

The cat hurt its paw.
The furniture store celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Note: From what we understand, the possessive was also written it’s until a couple of hundred years ago. While we don’t know for certain, it is possible that the apostrophe was dropped in order to parallel possessive personal pronouns like hers, theirs, yours, ours, etc.”

Posted on Thursday, April 12, 2012, at 5:35 pm


92 Responses to “Its vs. It’s”

  1. Sandy says:

    I was taught you don’t write #1. Instead, it should be written No.1. Could you please clarify? Thanks

    • Jane says:

      We were certainly taking liberties there by using the very informal #1 because the proper “The Number One Grammar Error” wouldn’t look as catchy or fit on one line.

      • Lia says:

        If one has set out to go so far as to nitpick the use of #1 over No. 1 in an attempt to display an intellectual superiority, than it would be wise of them to review their own grammar and/or punctuation, as they have failed to place a space between the period (it is No. 1 not No.1). Additionally, while I agree that the use of #1 is rather informal, the correct “proper” title would actually be “The Number One Grammatical Error”, rather than your suggestion of “The Number One Grammar Error”.
        Take note for the future to review and correct your own writing before attempting to correct another in an attempt to create superiority.

        • Jane says:

          Although you are correct in pointing out Sandy’s typographical error of omitting the space after the period, we must defend our blog’s use of the term “grammar error.” The Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 5.66, Adjectives Defined, includes the following definition:

          “An adjective may add a new idea to a noun or pronoun by describing it more definitely or fully {red wagon} {human error}”

          We used the term “grammar error” the same way one would use “human error.”

          We are not sure who you are assuming has made “an attempt to create superiority.” We do note, however, an incorrect use of “than” vs. “then,” and a lack of agreement between “one” and “them” in your first sentence. Also, our website represents American English, where periods and commas are placed inside quotation marks (sentence two).

          • Julian says:

            This was the funniest thing. I’m in ENG COMP first year and I feel so dumb reading these comments. where can I find information without feeling so ignorant! Lia, was it necessary to make an “attempt” to establish superiority?

          • Jane says:

            We would love for our readers to feel smarter after reading the blog comments. You might want to begin your study by reviewing our English rules, starting with the ones on capitalization and punctuation. To gain more knowledge, read the blogs that correspond with the rules and try to master the quizzes. Hopefully our website will help you with your class. And, a new edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation will be available in February 2014, which we hope you will be eager to obtain! Good luck!

          • Jan says:

            Thank you, thank you, thank you for explaining about placement of commas and periods WITHIN closing quotation marks in American English. I wish everyone knew that! There has been a noticeable change the past 10 years or so where most of the people in the USA leave the commas and periods outside of end quotes, like little orphans left out in the rain. I honestly do not think our public schools are teaching this anymore.
            And while I’m at it, here’s another recent, but incorrect practice: The use of “apostrophe s” to pluralize a word. Where did THAT come from?! We had rules telling us to “drop the Y and add IES,” or “add an S,” or “add an ES.” Outside of using “apostrophe s” to indicate, for example, that a student earned straight A’s on her report card, the “apostrophe s” is like using a dab of glue stick to attach an S and create the plural. “TV’s” is not the same as “TVs,” but people who do not understand how to pluralize won’t know the difference. Are people too lazy to pluralize correctly? Or are these basics just not being taught anymore? Do our teachers not even know? What has happened to the English language? It’s sad.
            Thank you for the work you do, for helping educate the writing world, and for letting me vent.

          • Laurie Lee Oberg says:

            Wikipedia, though based in the US, eschews the American-style “punctuation inside the quotation mark.” I know, because I have made corrections that have subsequently been undone, and have been chastised when questioning the practice. Apparently, at Wikipedia, techie/programmer types make the rules regarding punctuation.

        • jen says:

          Lia, Sandy was simply ASKING for clarity! You were the one trying, unsuccessfully, to show superiority. Go back, read your reply, THEN you may understand what I mean. Don’t be such a meanie!!

          In your own words: “Take note for the future to review and correct your own writing before attempting to correct another in an attempt to create superiority.”

        • seth says:

          Someone is being a bit pedantic. Also, I love how the publisher of this blog responded to your comment.

        • Richard says:

          … Intellectual superiority, thEn ….

          • Correct, as Jane pointed out in her comment of October 5, 2013.

          • Chase says:

            I stumbled upon this comments section while looking up the proper use of it’s vs its. Can i just say that I laughed very hard at the politely worded grammar Nazi war that has ensued. It was educational and made my day. Thanks!

          • Captain Obvious says:

            Apparently we are all somewhat ignorant or we wouldn’t be looking up the correct usage of its and it’s, let alone discussing how superior one another is, or rather battling it out with words! I found this incredibly farcical and just had to plug my thoughts in! Good day to all! At least we can laugh and learn all at the same time, or perhaps learn and cry for a few. I just noticed this website refuses to let me look incompetent, as it spell checks and auto capitalizes words for me! Hmm

          • Dubya says:

            The first rule of grammatical Criticism is that one is guaranteed to make a grammatical error.

          • Cara says:

            I searched to satisfy my curiosity as to why Outlook keeps spell-checking my “it’s” as in “it has” to “its” in my emails; What I found was a hysterical war of words. Thanks for giving me a giggle and proving Outlook wrong!

  2. Christopher says:

    Is there a reason behind why there is no apostrophe when “its” is used as a possessive?
    I think that part of the confusion is that an apostrophe is normally used as a possessive with a noun or proper noun.

    • Jane says:

      You are correct for nouns but not for pronouns. Our Rule 9 of Apostrophes states “Never use an apostrophe with possessive pronouns: his, hers, its, theirs, ours, yours, whose. They already show possession so they do not require an apostrophe.” If an apostrophe is used, you have the contraction it’s which means “it is.” This is a very common mistake.

      • Koushik says:

        Why is it wrong. It’s my pen gets expanded to It is my pen. I don’t see why you can’t have an apostrophe for possessive its.

        • Jane says:

          As I said in my response to Eric of January 27, 2013, “From what I understand, the possessive was also written it’s until a couple of hundred years ago. While I don’t know for certain, it is possible that the apostrophe was dropped to parallel possessive personal pronouns like hers, theirs, yours, etc.”

          • Mary-Celeste says:

            Wasn’t it even more recent than a couple hundred years ago? I remember being surprised by that entry in Merriam Websters’s Dictionary of English Usage.

          • Jane says:

            According to Wikipedia, “The possessive of it was originally it’s, and many people continue to write it this way, though the apostrophe was dropped in the early 1800s and authorities are now unanimous that it’s can be only a contraction of it is or it has. For example, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson used it’s as a possessive in his instructions dated 20 June 1803 to Lewis for his preparations for his great expedition.”

          • Renee says:

            Please tell me the word Websters’s is incorrect. It makes my head hurt. How does one pronounce this?

          • Jane says:

            If there is a person whose first name is Webster, the singular possessive is Webster’s. If there is a family whose last name is Webster, the plural possessive is Websters’. The only way that Websters’s could be correct is if the person’s first name is Websters, and that seems unlikely.

        • Zach says:

          That’s not an example of possession, that’s an example of contraction which you demonstrated by expanding it.

        • ibwilliamsi says:

          “It’s my pen” has an apostrophe because it is a contraction of “It is my pen”. If your pig has a pen, you could say “It’s its pen”.

          • Peter says:

            I believe “it’s its pen” in a porcine context would only be appropriate when referring to a neutered pig.

  3. J says:

    Thank you so much! I never knew the difference. This is really helpful because I have to take a test tomorrow in writing mechanics.

  4. Maddie says:

    For the use of an apostrophe in Christopher’s comment, what if the noun ended in an s? Would it be “Mr. Williams’s house”?

    • Jane says:

      Our Rule 2 of Apostrophes says, “Although names ending in s or an s sound are not required to have the second s added in possessive form, it is preferred.”

      Mr. Williams’s house is correct.

  5. Char says:

    Jane, thank you so very much for posting this to remind me of the simple rules. I’ve begun writing and editing again lately and this one has driven me batty for not being able to really remember.

  6. Kevin says:

    Wow, I now have new respect for my grammar school teachers. I’m 52, not a writer and knew all of those…although it is nice to be reminded of the rules now and then. I do have one question though. I recall being taught something called parsing in Jr. High school. I have never been able to find anything about this though. I have always assumed I remember the name wrong. It was a procedure where each word had multiple layers of definition in a sentence. For example, a word would first be identified as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.. and then there were additional levels, such as direct object and many, many more. Is this just standard grammar, or is there a specific area of study for this level of detail. I recall that it was very challenging, but rewarding as well.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Jane says:

      Parsing is the correct term and you can find loads of information on the internet about this detailed technique for learning grammar. Whereas parsing was generally done orally or using written out explanations, sentence diagramming came later and used a diagram method for learning parts of speech and grammar. As Wikipedia states, “Parsing was formerly central to the teaching of grammar throughout the English-speaking world, and widely regarded as basic to the use and understanding of written language. However the teaching of such techniques is no longer current.”

      • mrclean says:

        Did Wiki state a comma splice too?

        As Wikipedia states, “Parsing was formerly central to the teaching of grammar throughout the English-speaking world, and widely regarded as basic to the use and understanding of written language. However the teaching of such techniques is no longer current.”

        • Jane says:

          Our Rule 14 of Commas defines a comma splice as “an error caused by joining two strong clauses with only a comma instead of separating the clauses with a conjunction, a semicolon, or a period.” Since the Wikipedia entry does use the conjunction and, it does not contain a comma splice.

          • Vanessa L says:

            “English-speaking world, and widely regarded”

            Is it necessary to have both the comma and the conjunction?

          • Jane says:

            The conjunction could be left out, but not the comma. Wikipedia could have written:

            “Parsing was formerly central to the teaching of grammar throughout the English-speaking world, widely regarded as basic to the use and understanding of written language. However the teaching of such techniques is no longer current.”

        • Alexis says:

          In this sentence, isn’t “widely regarded as basic to the use and understanding of written language” a dependent clause, so shouldn’t the comma before the conjunction be eliminated? I was under the impression that a comma is used when a conjunction joins two clauses only if both clauses are independent.

          • We have to remember that the reason to punctuate is to guide the reader. The comma comes after a long clause. It’s not strictly necessary but it gives the reader some breathing room before the next long passage starting with “and.” Though we previously mentioned that the conjunction could be omitted, we do not recommend dropping the “and” in any case. Plus, the word “was” needs to be added before “widely.”

            Rather than trying to apply robotic rules, we should be looking at this as a unique sentence created by humans, with places in it where pauses are indicated. Commas are desirable wherever someone would pause if speaking the sentence. That’s just comma, er, common sense.

      • Michelle says:

        We did parsing in grade 8 years ago. I loved it! Sadly, there is barely any grammar taught, let alone parsing, in our primary, elementary, and secondary schools of today.

  7. Eric says:

    Thank you very much – very useful. I also never understood why the possessive for “it” doesn’t require an apostrophe.

    • Jane says:

      From what I understand, the possessive was also written it’s until a couple of hundred years ago. While I don’t know for certain, it is possible that the apostrophe was dropped to parallel possessive personal pronouns like hers, theirs, yours, etc.

  8. David Morenus says:

    I think that your reply of Jan. 27, 2013 (or June 22, 2012) adds value to the article, by providing the reason. Perhaps you should edit it in?

    As to your Rule 2 of Apostrophes’ suggestion, that “Kansas’s statute” be preferred to “Kansas’ statute”, I disagree. Not only is my mother with me on this, but so is the U.S. Supreme Court (Kansas v. Marsh, 2006). Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, leaving off the extra “s”; Justice David Souter wrote the dissenting opinion, wishing to add it on.

    • Jane says:

      Thank you for your suggestion to elaborate on the grammar tip “Its vs. It’s”; we may very well do that. However, I stand firmly behind my Apostrophes, Rule 2 Note, which reads “Although names ending in s or an s sound are not required to have the second s added in possessive form, it is preferred.” The Chicago Manual of Style agrees and includes the specific example Kansas’s legislature. Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court was not making a legal determination regarding apostrophes! You note that one justice left off the final s, one did not. While Supreme Court justices are no doubt very learned persons, they may have their own preferences regarding the nuances of grammar and punctuation.

  9. Katie says:

    Is there a reason why it seems that the autocorrect features say “it’s” grammatically incorrect when used as a contraction?

    • Jane says:

      You may want to contact the software company with your question. The only other reason I can think of is that it is suggesting that you consider using it is rather than a contraction in formal writing.

    • Beth says:

      Actually I have noticed the same issue, that the grammar check function in Word consistently gives a correction when I use it’s for the contraction of it is, recommending that I use its. In fact, I searched out this article because I thought maybe the rules had changed and I wasn’t aware! Thanks for the article to confirm that I’m using it’s/its correctly.

      • Jane says:

        Perhaps if enough people contact them about the error they will fix it.

        • Laura says:

          Well today I’m typing away in word 2010 and type “last 30 mintues at its longest” and the Grammar tools underlines this and recommends it’s. To me it is “its” so it would seem the grammar tool in Word 2010 has it backwards.

  10. Emily says:

    It thought its’ represents the punctuation for showing possession. For example, the dog enjoyed playing with its’ toy. Is this incorrect?

    • Jane says:

      As our Rule 2 above states, “When you are using its as a possessive, don’t use the apostrophe.” The word it’s is the contraction for it is or it has. Its’ is grammatically incorrect since the word it is always singular.
      The dog enjoyed playing with its toy.

  11. Aman says:

    So there is no such word as “its’”?

  12. K says:

    Katie and Beth, I think there is an option in the grammer setting in Word to avoid the use of contractions. You may be able to change the setting to avoid this notice. (In Word 2007, look in the Office menu, Word Options, Proofing for the settings.)

  13. Willow says:

    This has changed from when I was in high school in the 90′s. We were taught to always write it’s, no matter what.

  14. Jess says:

    What if the sentence is “…it’s been decided…” correct or not?

    • Jane says:

      It is correct if you add a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence and a period at the end. In this case, it’s is a contraction for it has.
      It’s been decided.

  15. Timster says:

    I still remember the very day in elementary school in the 1960′s in Illinois when my teacher taught on this subject. I loved grammar and parsing and sentence trees.
    But one day she wrote on the chalk board -its’- and explained it was the possessive for the third person nueter singular. It didn’t make any sense to me then and it doesn’t now! I am so glad to learn that the apostrophe was dropped and I don’t have to use it for the possessive of “it”. Thank you so very much for clearing this up. Now I just have to remember to use “it’s” as a contraction!

    • Mary V says:

      I respectfully ask if one should write 1960s or 1960′s; I am unable to find the answer on this site. Thank you.

      • Jane says:

        The eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, which will be published in February 2014, acknowledges that there are different schools of thought about years and decades. Both of your options are in widespread use. We will be making this change to the website at that time.

  16. Mary V says:

    It’s been a pleasure reading about its usages. Correct?

  17. Lee says:

    In terms of transcribing something like a sermon, the speaker often uses the term “it’s”. If I want to publish a many sermons into a book, would it be proper to change the colloquial use of “it’s” into “it is” for publication purposes or is it better to use the original voice of the speaker. Thank you for reading.

  18. Julia says:

    One thing to be aware of: Microsoft Office autocorrect often highlights “it’s”, even when it’s correct.

    I thought I already knew that rule, but it kept correcting me. So I had to look it up again.

    Thanks for posting.

    • Jonny says:

      And it’s still happening on the new version of Microsoft Word; thought I was going mental when it kept correcting me. So I second guessed myself and checked up on its correct usage here – now i have 15 pages to go back through and check my its-it’s.

  19. D. G. says:

    Thank you very much, this was helpful. I know how to use “it’s” (or it is/has) but I was a little confused about the other way “its”.

  20. Eleanor T. says:

    I have a quick question: is “its’” a figment of my imagination? I thought I
    had learned to put the apostrophe after the s to show possession, even
    including when using its’.

    • Jane says:

      A couple of other people have written in saying they thought they remembered being taught in school in the mid-1900s to write its’ in certain situations. To our knowledge this has never been correct. When used to show possession, its has no apostrophe.

  21. Starburned says:

    Thank you for this. After hours upon hours of writing an essay on little sleep (and on an uninteresting topic) I forgot this basic rule.

  22. Shiblee Mehdi says:

    My little girl of 8 years wrote following sentences with Its. (by the way, English is not our mother tongue)
    Are any of the following incorrect?

    1. Its size is too big.
    2. Its name is sweety.
    3. Its colour is red.
    4. Its taste is sweet.

  23. Shoba says:

    I have a question sort of may be irrelevant to the it here. I need some clarification as I am confused by ‘it’. If it is third person singular is it ok to use it in a sentence where it means a child? For example if avsentence says, “the child will be place in its level.” is it right or not. I am confused if it can be used for human being ( the confusion is due to the grammar in my native language where “it” can be used only for non living thing.)

  24. Shoba says:

    I am sorry, pls read, if the sentence says ” the child will be placed in it’s level”

  25. Levin rojas says:

    when just using it’s as an affirmation to a question, for example:
    “is that my cup?”
    “it is.”
    can use “it’s” as an answer to a question like this? example:
    “is this my cup?”

    if I’m going with the logic of rule one this type of answer would be perfectly viable but it doesn’t roll off for some reason. please clarify

    • Using it’s as a contraction for “it is” is correct in some instances. Responding to the question “Is that your cup?” with the replies “It is” or “It’s my cup” is grammatically correct. We would not recommend responding to any question by simply replying “it’s.”

  26. Chris M says:

    I hope you can find time to address the incorrect use of “I” and “me.”

    For example:

    Mary and I are going to the cinema.

    It’s time for Mary and me to go to the cinema.

    Both the above sentences are grammatically correct yet nowadays people are more and more using “I” when they should be using “me.”

  27. Simon says:

    “And, a new edition of The Blue Book of Grammar…”

    I would like to point out that the word “and” did not require a comma, it could be considered grammatically incorrect. Not to mention that starting a sentence with that word is generally frowned upon, too.

    Sincerely, someone without an English background.

    • The writer felt that in this particular case a pause was appropriate after “And,” hence the comma. This is an experienced writer’s choice.

      To your second point, The Chicago Manual of Style’s rule 5.206 says, “There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.”

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