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English Lesson 3: Correct Use of Its and It’s

March 29th, 2008

Of all the instances of grammatical errors that occur both online and offline, the misuse of its and it’s is probably the single most prevalent example of poor English usage that I have encountered. Interestingly, it is also one of the easiest kinds of mistakes to avoid. If you’re (not your) confused about which word to use, the rule is actually quite simple.

Use it’s (with the apostrophe) whenever you would logically use “it is” or “it has” in the sentence; it’s (not its) a contraction of two separate words. Otherwise, use its (without the apostrophe), which is the possessive adjective form of the pronoun it. This word is used in a similar fashion to other possessive adjectives such as my, your, their, his, her, and our.

Although its usage is less common than the other variants, I should point out that its’ (with the apostrophe after the s) is simply invalid syntax and should never be used in a proper English sentence unless you have some strange desire to look like an ignorant fool. Now let us look at some examples of correct and incorrect usage:

Incorrect:

it-is-its.jpg

The sign reads: KEEP SOURCES OF IGNITION INCLUDING ALL VEHICLES, AT LEAST 1.5 m (5 FEET) FROM THE TANK, IT’S ACCESSORIES, AND IT’S ENCLOSURE
BZZZZZT!

Correct: KEEP ALL SOURCES OF IGNITION (INCLUDING VEHICLES) AT LEAST 1.5 m (5 FEET) FROM THE TANK, ITS ACCESSORIES, AND ITS ENCLOSURE




Incorrect:

its-it-is.jpg

The sign reads: ITS THE LAW
PLEASE LEASH, CURB AND CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOG!
BZZZZZT!

Correct: IT’S THE LAW
PLEASE LEASH, CURB, AND CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOG!


Finally, here is an example of the its’ abomination:

Incorrect: A society abandons its citizens, And Its’ citizens abandon its’ society — J. Ray Rice at blog.itsallaboutabandonment.com

BZZZZZT!

Correct: When a society abandons its citizens, the citizens will abandon their society.

For next week, if we continue with the current trend of covering the most commonly confused groups of homonyms, I will probably address the to vs. too vs. two issue. However, I am open to alternatives if there are other grammar-related issues that you would like to see addressed first.


Helpful Resource:

The Least You Should Know about English: Writing Skills


24 Responses to “English Lesson 3: Correct Use of Its and It’s”

  1. comment number 1 by: arnold

    What intrigued me about this article was the photos. I am sure I walk past misspelled signs just like these, on a daily basis, I will have to start keeping my eyes open.

  2. comment number 2 by: Karlonia

    @Arnold:

    Yes, these kinds of misspelled signs are surprisingly common. Other places to look for English usage errors are instruction manuals, print advertisements, and any text-based content in software programs (for example, PC or console games).

    The most common errors that I have seen from these kinds of sources besides the its vs. it’s issue mentioned above include “you” in place of “your” (usually a typo) and various instances where whole words are simply left out of a sentence. These are the types of mistakes that are not caught by spell checkers but can be fixed after a thorough proofreading.

  3. comment number 3 by: Caren

    This just reminds me…I saw an article in the New York times today. I’m sure you know they have a tendency of breaking articles into two parts right?

    Well part 1 had “its” in the title (correct)
    part 2 had “it’s” in the title (incorrect).

    and this wasn’t a small title either. It was a big title. :D. It’s weird that the title on the original excerpt was right, but not on the 2nd excerpt. Different proofers perhaps? (and proofer 2 obviously would need to go back to school).

  4. comment number 4 by: Tomas

    Thank you for the wonderful article. It was written so clearly. It was the beneficial indeed. I don’t hear English on my daily walk and know the words only from my Lithuanian-English dictionary. Therefore I was doubly happy to come to your blog. While reading I have learned a lot. Thank you once again.

  5. comment number 5 by: Catherine @ Sharp Words

    Very nice piece. I have a total loathing of rogue apostrophes (as I call them) which includes the ones mistakenly put before s to make a possessive when it shouldn’t be. They actually grate on my nerves and I hate having to sit near signs with apostrophes out of place (in restaurants) for example as I can’t stop looking at them!

  6. comment number 6 by: E-creation.eu

    Thanks for that very clear statement on correct and incorrect use. I have to admit, for the past 25 years or so, it looks like I have been using “it’s” incorrectly - how embarrassing!

    Now I must go through a rather unpalatable number of websites to check the content …

  7. comment number 7 by: John Wilson

    In a token defence of those people who misuse it’s, when I was much MUCH younger, I often got it wrong based on the fact that if one is talking about something belonging to someone eg. “..it was John’s football….” the apostrophe applies, and it is (it’s) usually along those lines that the mistake occurs. For example, “the cat lost it’s toy mouse….” or “….the company and it’s employees……” has a certain grammatical logic to it, albeit misplaced. Meanwhile, one that REALLY gets my goat, is when people say “xyz is really quite unique” aaaarrgghh. By gum, I feel better for that.

  8. comment number 8 by: John Wilson

    Can anyone explain to me how one decides when to use “affect” and when to use “effect”? Is it simply that affected is when a “change” is self imposed, as in “…….his manner was decidedly affected……..” ie not genuine, and effected is when change is caused by an outside force, as in “………but the wind effected the game badly…..”?

    I MUST get out more!

  9. comment number 9 by: Karlonia

    @John:

    I have already covered the affect vs. effect issue here:

    Correct Use of Affect and Effect

    In your examples, we would use “affected” in both cases because we are referring to something being changed and using the word as a verb. Most of the time, we write “effect” when we’re using it as a noun; however, there are exceptions, so you might want to read through my article to learn about all of the relevant nuances.

    Meanwhile, remember that you can click on the “English Usage” category in the sidebar to look at the other grammar-related posts that have already been published. If there is a topic you would like to read about that is not included here, you can always suggest it in the comment section and I might cover it in a future post.

  10. comment number 10 by: Tom

    THANK YOU for this - makes up for years of neglect and confusion!

  11. comment number 11 by: A.T.H. Webber

    Oh dear.

    Oh dear dear dear.

    It seems that I have been confusing my its.

    It’s concerning.

    When it’s looked at on its own though, conceptually,

    it’s not that much of a problem.

    What is a problem though, is now I feel the urge to traul through all my blog posts.

    Humph.

    Why did I have to type “correct use of it’s” in the google thing.

    ;-)

  12. comment number 12 by: Bobalicious

    Hmm… Nice ITS!

  13. comment number 13 by: shreedhar

    thanxs
    it has been really useful to me.

  14. comment number 14 by: Vinay Kudithipudi

    Thank you very much for clarifying this. I always used to wonder why the spellchecker on word used to show my use of it’s as incorrect :). I finally did a search on Google and you solved the mystery :).

  15. comment number 15 by: Kellie

    @Vinay: You were lucky! Not once has my spell checker picked up on my atrocities! Oh the shame of it all..

  16. comment number 16 by: chuckster

    I always hated grammar class.

  17. comment number 17 by: dereje

    thanks

  18. comment number 18 by: Goff in Cambs

    Re: its and it’s.
    ——————-

    Sorry but I have nearly lost friends in this argument, but I have to say again that I STILL fail to see why ‘it’s’ (possessive) is not legitimate.

    I understand, obviously, the business of it’s = it is, but don’t get the argument about the possessive version.

    I can see that the equivalent ‘his/hers’ don’t have apostrophes either, I believe that technically this is because their structure has changed so they become new words and therefore immune.

    But where we have examples of `ownership’ such as `Tom’s’ and ‘Mary’s’, why oh why isn’t ‘it’s’ legitimate either.

    Examples:
    Mary’s hat is crooked.
    Tom’s socks are falling down.
    My house is a ruin, it’s roof is nearly collapsed.
    (i.e. My house’s roof is nearly collapsed)

    It’s simple, surely ?

    None of my friends have been able to explain this matter to me satisfactorily, some of them are intelligent and educated people, and they all simply fall back on the old excuse that ‘it’s just the way it is’.

    Not good enough !

    Help !!!

  19. comment number 19 by: Donna

    I was taught to use ’s to show ownership, so I would think it’s customers would be correct. According to this, it’s incorrect?

  20. comment number 20 by: Dave

    Thanks for a concise article - I’d been taught the same way as Goff in Cambridgeshire (possessive, use “it’s”) over 30 years ago. I’m thinking that I probably blanked out “its” special usage from my memories of those lessons and was only made aware of my incorrect usage after a teacher proofed a manuscript and brought it to my attention.

    Thank you for clearing it up for me!

  21. comment number 21 by: Everi Mann

    Curiously, my Word checker wanted to change it’s to its, even I was correct according to this lesson. Spell checkers are great, but one still must THINK.

  22. comment number 22 by: Fungus

    Great article. I used it to prove the point to my sister. She thinks the ’s on it to show posession is correct. I, like Catherine, don’t like to see bad grammar on printed stuff. It grates on my nerves also.

  23. comment number 23 by: Seth

    In terms of the - its’ - being an abomination, I was taught otherwise. I was taught that the apostrophe after the “s” shows possesion. For example if you were to show someone owns a certain object within a sentence you’d write/ type, “Seths’ car is brown.” Simply writing “Seths car is brown,” without the apostrophe, would be incorrect, while writing/ typing, “Seth’s car is brown,” would read/ be spoken as, “Seth is car is brown,” which would also obviously be incorrect. Lending the “apostrophe after the s” as a tool to help differentiate between a plural word, showing ownership, and an abreviated “is”.

    I think the way that I was taught would make much more sense in general, not to mention the possibility that it would probably make it easier for people who don’t know English (very well) to (learn to) read, speak and write the English language.

  24. comment number 24 by: David

    From what I was taught at highschool, its’ is meant to be used exclusively in the (rare) case that a noun ends in s but can’t be changed into es, usually because it’s a name. For example, the possessive form of Jones would be Jones’.

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