Words at Play

When to Use It's vs. Its

A Simple Rule to Avoid Embarrassment

It's happened to all of us: you type it's and later realize you meant its. (And by "realize" we occasionally mean, "got flamed in the comments section.")


The rule is actually pretty simple: use the apostrophe after it only when part of a word has been removed: it's raining means it is raining; it's been warm means it has been warm. It's is a contraction, in the style of can't for cannot and she's for she is.

But this rule wouldn't have worked a few centuries ago.

Long ago, English was like many other languages in that every noun had a gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter. Pronouns — those efficient little words we use to stand in for nouns, like I, you, he, she, we, they, and it — also had gender; the gender of a pronoun was determined by the gender of the noun it referred to. The possessive pronoun for neuter nouns was his: "April with his sweet showers." But when English began to link his and her only to actual males and females, his for objects seemed increasingly wrong, and it — with no s — began to be used: "April with it sweet showers." Around 1600 it's began to be used: "April with it's sweet showers." The it's had an apostrophe, just like a possessive noun like April's would.

This apostrophe form of the possessive remained extremely common throughout the 17th century. The version without the apostrophe only became dominant in the 18th century — probably because it's was taking on a new role, replacing the contraction 'tis. It's here had arrived and 'tis here was fading away.

We still see the possessive it's in dashed-off tweets and in flyers from local mattress stores, but the fact that it was right 300 years ago doesn't make it correct today. For those of us who live — and write — in the here and now, use it's only when you mean it is or it has. And drop that apostrophe everywhere else.

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