• 3-minute read
  • 24th April 2016

Word Choice: It’s vs. Its

Sometimes the little details make a big difference, such as with the brave little apostrophe we find at the heart of one of the most commonly confused word pairs around: ‘it’s’ and ‘its’.

Although similar, the difference between these terms is crucial if you want to communicate clearly in your written work. But how different can they possibly be?

The Problem

Some confusions arise because people don’t know the rules of grammar. In this case, though, it might be a case of applying the rules incorrectly.

For instance, most people know we use apostrophes in two situations:

  1. Contractions – two words combined into one – use an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter (e.g. ‘did not’ becomes ‘didn’t’).
  2. Possessives use an apostrophe + ‘s’ to indicate ownership (e.g. the sail that belongs to the ship is ‘the ship’s sail’).

As such, we might be tempted to write ‘it’s’ either when forming a contraction involving ‘it’ and another word, or when something belongs to an ‘it’.

However, in practice we only use an apostrophe for contractions involving ‘it’, as explained below.

It’s (It Is)

‘It’s’ (with an apostrophe) can be short for either ‘it is’ or ‘it has’:

It is lovely to see you! = It’s lovely to see you!

It has been too long! = It’s been too long!

As with any contraction, the apostrophe here indicates that letters have been removed so two words can be combined into one.

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Generally, contractions are considered informal, so it’s best to avoid using them in academic writing (or ‘it is best to avoid them’, if we’re being formal).

Its (Belonging to It)

Although most possessives require apostrophe + ‘s’, this isn’t the case with ‘its’ because ‘its’ is a possessive determiner, like an impersonal version of ‘his’ or ‘her’ (neither of which require an apostrophe).

There is, therefore, no need to add an apostrophe to indicate possession when the possessor is an ‘it’ (although we wouldn’t usually call a person an ‘it’):

The man’s monkey stared at me. Its teeth were stained with blood.

In the sentence above, we use apostrophe + ‘s’ for ‘man’s’ when identifying the owner of the monkey, but not for ‘its’ when describing the monkey’s teeth.

He's coming for you. There's no escape.
He’s coming for you. There’s no escape. Photo by Jason Scragz

It’s or Its?

This is actually quite simple once you know the difference. Just keep the following in mind (and remember that contractions are not typically used in formal writing):

It’s (contraction) = ‘It is’ or ‘It has’

Its (possessive pronoun) = Belonging to it

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