Not a day goes by that I don’t see it’s or its used incorrectly. Usually, it’s is the culprit. Having fallen victim to the error myself, I began thinking about why it happens so often even among generally careful writers despite all the grammar checkers and proofing tools available to help us catch mistakes.
I’ve always been bedeviled by homonyms, mostly because I sound out things in my head as I read, so there, their, and they’re all sound alike. It’s the same with its and it’s. I take one for the other occasionally in drafts, but when I do my proofing, I think on pronouns and their curious pitfalls.
Take these two pronouns for example — she and he. To show possession, she becomes her and he becomes his. But then we have hers when we say something belongs to her: It’s hers. Yet, his doesn’t change at all — it’s his. We also have yours, ours, and its — all three indicate possession but don’t have the usual apostrophe S as regular nouns do: John’s, Ed’s, Nancy’s, etc. But depending on how they appear in a sentence, John’s or Ed’s or Nancy’s, might be contractions: John’s = John is, Ed’s = Ed is, and Nancy’s = Nancy is. But with pronouns, an apostrophe S is always a contraction and never indicates possession: he’s = he is, it’s = it is, she’s = she is.
Pronouns are outliers because several of them show possession by simply adding an S without the apostrophe like other nouns do: hers, ours, theirs, yours. So, we write it’s hers, it’s ours, it’s theirs — but with regular nouns we have it’s John’s, it’s Ed’s, it’s Nancy’s (it — whatever it is — belongs to John, Ed, or Nancy, respectively). But some pronouns do take an apostrophe S: one’s, anyone’s, and someone’s — as in One’s fingerprint is unique, It must be someone’s, It could be anyone’s. Yet, they can be contractions, too: Someone's got to do it = Someone has to do it. It’s the same for somebody and anybody. Frankly, it’s a pretty maddening bit of grammar.
So back to its and it’s. It is a pronoun, and when it wants to indicate possession, it doesn’t have an apostrophe S, it’s just its. It’s is always a contraction.
It’s easy to see why a non-native speaker trying to learn English would find this pronoun business random and nonsensical — and why native speakers fall for its when it should be it’s. The simple test when proofing is to sound out it’s as it is and see if your sentence makes sense. If it doesn’t, you want its.
©2017 John Hofmeister. Originally published at jhofmeister.com/musings.
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me. Quite of bit of satire, a genre that has become increasingly difficult to work in since reality has become such a farce.