• 3-minute read
  • 18th May 2016

Word Choice: Its vs. It’s

Apostrophes have a bad habit of turning up in unexpected places. Confusion between “its” and “it’s,” for example, is so common that, as proofreaders, we pretty much consider it our nemesis.

Worry not, though! We’ve prepared this simple guide to using “its” and “it’s” correctly, so read on and you’ll soon be equipped to join our crusade against this common grammatical error.

Why the Problem Occurs

“Its” and “it’s” are so frequently confused because there are two situations in which we typically add an apostrophe to a word:

  • To indicate possession (e.g., the windshield on a car is the “car’s windshield”)
  • To indicate omitted letters in a contraction (e.g., “do not” becomes “don’t”)

It would therefore make sense for something belonging to an “it” to be indicated by adding an apostrophe + “s” to the word, but in practice we only use an apostrophe for the contraction “it’s.”

Why? And how do you remember this distinction? Let us explain.

Its (Possessive)

The term “its” is used when referring to something owned or belonging to an “it” (typically an object or animal):

With its smashed windows and chipped paintwork, the car was a wreck.

Just don’t ask us what we were doing when we wrecked it. [Photo: Thomas R Machnitzki]

“Its” doesn’t require an apostrophe because it is a possessive determiner, like “his,” “her” or “your” (none of which require an apostrophe to indicate possession).

It’s (Contraction)

“It’s” is a contraction, a shortened version of two separate words with letters omitted. To be specific, “it’s” combines “it” with either “is” or “has” depending on the tense used:

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It is finally time! = It’s finally time!

It has been a long wait! = It’s been a long wait!

Like any other contraction, you must use an apostrophe to show that two words have been combined when writing “it’s.”

Its or It’s?

The distinction between these terms is vital for clarity, so it’s definitely worth taking a moment to remember how they should be used. Thankfully, the difference is a fairly simple one:

Its = Possession

It’s = Contraction (either “it is” or “it has”)

Thus, if you’re writing about something that belongs to an “it,” the correct term will always be “its.” Likewise, if you’re using “it’s” as a shortened version of “it is” or “it has,” you’ll always need an apostrophe.

It’s also worth remembering that contractions are generally considered inappropriate in formal writing, so you should avoid terms like “it’s” in your college work and write “it is” in full instead.

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