It's "its"!

Okay, look. I'm a grammar snob. If you want to be able to communicate with others, you need to wrap that communication up in an easily digested package. You need to pay considerable attention to the form and structure of what you're saying as well as the content. Careless use of language instills in the reader a lack of confidence in the writer. In the academic world, poor grammar is often a further impediment towards the understanding of already complex material.

One particular error that never ceases to make me cringe is the misuse of the words "it's" and "its". The distinction between "it's" and "its" was first conveyed to me with great intensity in the eighth grade, by the venerable Donna George at West Island College in Montreal. For years thereafter I suppressed my anger at the apostrophical affront, playing the stoic as best I could. But as I grow older and more curmudgeonly, and as the grammatical fibre of our society erodes, my tolerance for this typographical trespass trickles away.

Here, then, is my defiant outpost, my barricade against the teeming masses who would overrun the world with superfluous apostrophes (or, less often, withhold those apostrophes when they are so rightly required). Of course, I would rather build a classroom than a fortress, and so here follows a lesson in the correct usage of the words "it's" and "its". Be kind to your friend the apostrophe.


It's

"It's" is a contraction. It is short for "it is" (or occasionally for "it has"). It's not a way to ascribe a property to some "it". Yes, I know that this would make sense given that the general rule for forming a possessive is to tack on "'s": fool's errand, brewer's yeast, horse's ass. "It's" is an exception to this rule, and I honestly apologize on behalf of the infuriating English language. I didn't invent this stupid rule, but it's hardwired into my brain like gender of nouns to French speakers.

Examples:

It's a small world, after all. It's a small world, after all. It's a small world, after all. It's a small world, after all.
You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around, that's what it's all about.
Well, it's been a long, been a long, been a long, been a long day.

Its

"Its" is a possessive pronoun. Its interpretation is something like "that which belongs to it", where "it" stands for some previously defined object. In the previous sentence, the object being referred to is the word "its", and the thing that belongs to it is its interpretation.

Examples:

He left it dead, and with its head he went galumphing back
Love rears its ugly head.

Using them correctly

With practice, it's easy to tell these two devilish words apart. To help you keep them separate, here are some handy tips:

Where to go from here

Misuse of the apostrophe carries over into the confusion between the plural and possessive forms of nouns. This is in some sense less forgivable, since the rule is much more general. Plural nouns require an "s", and possessives require an "'s". Never ever write something like
The twelve day's of Christmas
That's just wrong, and shouldn't require much thought. If you make this deplorable error, Bob the Angry Flower will descend on you and mess you up.

Admittedly, rules involving the apostrophe get somewhat fuzzy in places. I find it hard to pluralize a word like "printf" used as a noun, as in "This function contains twenty-two printfs", since that can lead to confusion. I would simply avoid the issue: "This function contains twenty-two occurrences of printf".

Conclusion

I'm glad I finally got that off my chest. Sorry to drag on for so long, but this really is important. If you want to be understood, you need to present your thoughts in a way that leaves the fewest barriers to comprehension. The error described here doesn't derail the reader, but it does present a speed bump, a momentary mental hiccup from which one must recover. A moment's thought while writing can make for a smooth ride later on.

I'm not alone in my concern for the proper use of the apostrophe. If you're still looking for answers, I'm sure you can find any number of other sources of information.

Post scriptum

July 26th, 1999: Kudos to Zac for discovering a (now corrected) typo on this page. No, it wasn't a misuse of "its" or "it's".

October 11th, 1999: Chuck was nice enough to point me to a frightening yet excellent collection: actual photos of incorrect usage of the apostrophe. Proceed with caution!

December 31st, 2000: I was reviewing the access logs for my web pages today, when I came across the following:

/homes/csk/its.html (11 hits):
    http://google.yahoo.com/bin/query?p="the+twelve+day's+of+christmas+"&hc=0&hs=0 (1)

What all this means is that someone came across the "it's" page by doing a google search on the phrase "the twelve day's of christmas" (presumably in a search for the full lyrics). Shame on you, whoever you are, and I hope I have steered you away from a life of punctuation abuse.

January 10th, 2001: I found this quote in a story on cnn.com today:

Indeed, the TWA transaction will provide American with a critical new hub in St. Louis, significantly bolstering it's position as an east/west carrier.

I can (almost) understand it when somebody's personal page contains this mistake, or even when the notoriously ungrammatical guys at slashdot slip up. But CNN? I have great respect for the writing skill of the CNN staff. Oops -- had.

May 23rd, 2002: I received an email from Brian Bridson this morning. He points out that for all my hifalutin' grammar snobbishness, this page is riddled with errors. Specifically, the rules of punctuation require that when a quotation is followed by a comma or period, the punctuation mark appear before the closing quote, as in "this example." So let me warn you: this page should be used only as a guide to the apostrophe. Do not take it as an example of how to use the comma or period. For more information, I invite you to read the response I sent to Brian's email.

August 7th, 2003: Grammar snobs unite! Jeremy Roberts writes to point out that one should not hyphenate two word phrases containing adverbs ending in "ly". I wasn't aware of this rule, and I'm following up to determine its full scope. In any case "easily-digested" has been changed to "easily digested" in the first paragraph. Thanks, Jeremy!

March 9th, 2006: Slowly but surely, we're converging on the most grammatically perfect web page in the world (now that's a low standard!). Bruce Chapman of New Zealand spotted a couple of additional typos on this page. Thanks!

May 1st, 2006: Thanks to Jeff, who pointed out that "'s" should be preceded by "an", not "a". It's a curious rule, being primarily an aid to pronunciation and less relevant in written English. But it's a rule nonetheless.

October 12th, 2006: Martijn Morrien found a small typo in one of the rules of thumb. It's amazing that people are still sending in corrections more than seven years after I wrote this web page.

November 2nd, 2006: The emails continue to arrive at a furious rate! Mary Zarazinsky claimed that this page was "full of misspelled words". I beg your pardon? For the first time ever, I ran the page through a spellchecker. Indeed, I discovered a small number of shocking spelling errors. Some were not so shocking; I have no intention of changing "hifalutin'" into "highfaluting", thank you very much.

Separately, Jessica Mullen took offence at my abuse of the comma before a dependent conjunctive clause. That's a personal weakness of mine, one that I've decided to leave in. Sorry, Jessica.

Man, you put one innocuous grammar page on the web, and the Donna Georges of the world come out of the woodwork. Keep those cards and letters coming!

November 2nd, 2006: As an aside, I can't help but refer to this web page, which contains a brief bio and photograph of Donna George. I find it especially amusing given that George McLeish, the person immediately below her on the page, is a family friend.

May 14th, 2007: I received an email about a month and a half ago praising this web page but asking that I remove the phrase "rule of thumb". There is some evidence that the expression goes back to a ruling in England that a man be permitted to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb. I confess that I had not previously heard that theory. I've decided to let the text stand. The evidence for the origin of the phrase isn't conclusive, and in any case the phrase itself is quite divorced from its suspected origins in modern usage. The request provoked some interesting discussion, though. (August 14th, 2007: Richard Bollard offers a link to this page, which does a fairly good job of discrediting this hypothetical etymology).

June 6th, 2007: A few people have inquired about the status of "its'", with an apostrophe following the "s". Yes, I can imagine a very contrived set of circumstances in which one might be able to use the word "its'". However, those circumstances will not arise in day-to-day writing. Given that this page is concerned with convenient guidelines, let me simply say this: you will never need to use "its'", period. It's probably best to assume that it's not a word at all.

August 15th, 2007: I'm starting to see why this page gets so many visitors. It's currently the top google hit for both of the individual words "it's" and "its". To be honest, that freaks me out a little bit. On the other hand, having now attained this minor level of celebrity, I would hate to be ousted. Link to this page liberally, and help make it the Official Internet Home of "it's" and "its".

December 10th, 2007: Thanks to Brian Conradsen for pointing out that I should never have used the expression "most grammatically perfect" in the update from March 9th, 2006 -- words like "perfect" and "unique" should never take intensifiers. Thus the page is not perfect after all, with the comment on perfection serving as its own counterexample! Perhaps I ought to have said "least flawed".


Craig S. Kaplan Last updated: