Get to the Point
It’s the Word Most Often Used Incorrectly
Its or it’s? Its, it’s the word that trips up many writers, the word that doesn’t follow the rules. The problem is the apostrophe. Apostrophes are most often used two ways: in a contraction or to show possession. Some names have apostrophes, too.
Contractions shorten up two words into one. Have, would, will, had, not and versions of “to be” (am, is, are) are often contracted. Use an apostrophe for the shortened version of a date. For example, you could write that this year is ’16. And use it when referencing plural letters such as when a person minds p’s and q’s or instructs that all the R’s in a phrase should be capitalized, like Righteous Rolling Rock.
English speakers are lucky to have a shortcut for showing possession. Rather than having to say “the injury of the plaintiff,” English speakers can say “the plaintiff’s injury.” Adding ’s to the end of a word indicates possession. If a noun already ends in s, maybe because it’s plural, show possession by adding the apostrophe after the s. Modern grammarians say you can also add ‘s so long as you’re consistent, though that may look weird to some readers.
Fairly simple, right? But people mix up when to use the apostrophe. For some, adding an s to the end of a noun to form the plural just cries out for an apostrophe. Businesses frequently make this mistake in their signage. No. When an s at the end of a noun indicates more than one person or thing and the noun is not followed by identification of a possession, use of an apostrophe is wrong.
And then there’s its.
Its is the possessive version of it. When talking about our country, you might say, “The importance of its constitution cannot be overstated.” The constitution possessed by the United States is what we’re talking about. There’s no apostrophe because the word it’s means something else.
There’s no regular plural of it as a pronoun, because the plural is they or them. So its can only be a possessive. A seldom seen exception might occur if the word is not working as a pronoun; it’s not substituting for a noun. There are a lot of “it”s in this post. Unless you’re writing a grammar column, you’ll probably never need to think about this.
It’s with the apostrophe is always a contraction meaning it is. According to the rules, it’s should be possessive. Sorry, it’s not. Its, the possessive of it, is just one of those exceptions that makes English English.
Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers compensation cases throughout California. She is also available for legal freelance writing assignments. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and the author of four books published by the American Bar Association, including "Women Rainmakers' Best Marketing Tips, 3rd Edition." Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at WCMediator.com and on Twitter @WCMediator.
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