Its or It’s?

anpencil3Whether I’m reading or editing student work or adult work, one of the most common errors is the improper use of its.

When teaching possessive, teachers usually say, “To make it possessive, add an apostrophe.” That’s true if you want to say Susie’s book or the dog’s bone. It’s also true if have a plural noun and need to say the dogs’ bones or the kids’ desks. Even I have repeated the mantra possessive has an apostrophe.

Rules in the English language are meant to be broken. Students have been known to ask, “If there are so many exceptions, how can they call it a rule?” Even so, one exception to the possessive rule should be memorable.

Its is the only possessive that has no apostrophe.

I want to look at its flower.

How can it wag its tail?

I think its hat is green.

The gods who designed the English language couldn’t put an apostrophe in the possessive its for the same reason Disney couldn’t give Hades his real Greek name in the movie Hercules. The correct Greek name was already in use–Pluto. How could Disney create a new bad guy and name him after the lovable dog? Likewise, its cannot have an apostrophe because the word already exists with the apostrophe.

It’s is a contraction. When you use the word it’s you always mean ‘it is.’ Always.

It’s going to be a hot day.

I want to know if it’s making a mess.

Can you tell me if it’s happening today?

So, very easy. Only use it’s if you mean to say it is. That’s it. No exceptions.




Lots of adults I know are as afraid of apostrophes as my students. They are constantly asking, “Does the apostrophe go before the ‘s’ on this one?” Some give up and never write possessively about any noun ending in s.  That is hard if your main character is Chris. You’d have to make him own absolutely nothing. Or, you could refer to his belongings as ‘the coat that belongs to Chris’ and annoy all your readers. I have a better suggestion. Why not learn, once and for all, where those dratted splots of ink go?

There are two uses for the apostrophe, to show possession and to form a contraction.

First, remember to never use an apostrophe for a plural noun. Plurals NEVER have apostrophes. There are two rules for possessives. ONE, put just an apostrophe by itself after a plural noun that ends in s. No extra s here, please! Example: The dogs’ bones are meaty. In this example, there are many dogs and they each have bones. TWO, put ‘s after everything else.  ALL singular nouns, whether they end in s or not, get an ‘s. Example: Chris’s dogs love the couch’s soft pillows. Here you have one Chris who owns many dogs. One couch has many pillows. Also, put ‘s after any plural noun that does NOT end in s. Example: The children’s friends enjoyed the mice’s soft fur. In this example, there are many children and many mice.

Second, you use apostrophes in contractions. The mistake here is that sometimes people change the spelling of the base word when they add the apostrophe. Remember that the apostrophe acts as a place holder for a letter that has been removed. For example, didn’t is a contraction of did not. You just smash the two words together and replace the o with an apostrophe. So must not becomes mustn’t, NEVER musn’t. You don’t change the spelling of must, you just replace the o with an apostrophe. (Yes, that’s don’t–do not–and that’s–that is).

AN EXCEPTION to the entire apostrophe world is it’s. Use it’s only when you want to say it is, never as a possessive. Example: It’s hard to separate a dog from its bone. Yes, you want to say It is hard..., so you use the contraction. The possessive form is without the apostrophe–its.

Try these:

1. I went to (Marcus’s/Marcus’) birthday party.

2. (It’s/Its) a fine day to be writing.

3. My three (dogs’/dog’s) tails are always wagging.

4. I willn’t/won’t give up easily.    *Hint: This one’s tricky.

5. My Math (book’s/books’) cover is torn.

Post your answers as a comment!

On my Kindle: Shaxoa’s Gift by DelSheree Gladden

*Okay, this was evil of me.  Willn’t is not a word.  It’s won’t. Don’t use willn’t. It will cause your English teacher’s eyes to roll back in her head, and she might stop breathing and fall on the floor, her face purple with rage. That’s not pretty.