Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week it's an itsy bitsy dilemma…
Q: Happy new year AWC! I have exciting news.
A: What’s that?
Q: Today we received our 10,000th request to do a Q&A on “it’s vs its”…
A: Okay, well we always said if we got to 10,000…
Q: That’s right. So, shall we?
A: Absolutely. After all, it’s the gold-medal-wearing culprit of the English language. That fingers-down-the-blackboard rule that trips up everyone from sign writers to baristas and of course your Facebook friends.
Q: It seems so simple. WHY do so many people struggle with this one?
A: It’s quite simple.
Q: It is.
A: Exactly – IT IS. “It’s” uses an apostrophe as a contraction – to replace missing letters. In this case, “it is” or “it has”. For example: “It’s been a lovely day today and it’s going to be just as nice tomorrow.”
Q: Oh is it? I thought it was supposed to rain.
A: It was an example.
Q: Ah yes. I always get tricked by those. Now, back to “it’s” – what ELSE does it do.
Q: Nothing else?
A: You see, this is the problem. People have a hard time believing that the word “it’s” simply means IT IS or IT HAS. End of story. Close the doors. Go home.
Q: But what about if something belongs to “it”?
A: Well then you drop the apostrophe. For example: “Summer is known for its hot days.”
Q: But WAIT. If something belongs to Jim, we say it’s “Jim’s car”. And we would talk about “summer’s hot days” – both of those use a possessive apostrophe.
A: They do. That is the other role of an apostrophe after all. But not all words use an apostrophe to show possession.
Q: They don’t?
A: Nope. Consider words such as “my”, “your”, “his”, “her” or “our” or “their” – inserted after initially establishing who or what it is, to avoid repetition.
A: It’s about saying “Jane’s room is tidy now that her bed is made” instead of having to say “Jane’s room is tidy now that Jane’s bed is made”. See how it’s still showing possession?
Q: Okay, yep. So “its” is one of these types of words?
A: Correct. These are known technically as possessive adjectives, but often just labelled generically as possessive pronouns.
Q: So the “s” in “its” is much more like the “s” in “his”?
A: That’s right – it just happens to be the final letter. Although, when the words become true possessive pronouns, such as in “mine”, “yours”, “ours”, “his”, “hers” and “theirs” – “its” doesn’t really come along for the ride. So you never write “your’s”, “her’s” or “their’s”.
Q: Why not?
A: Just how English works – we say “the dog is hers” or “the bags are ours” but not “the bag is its”.
Q: Okay. So, to recap – “it’s” is always for “it is” or “it has” and “its” is used to show possession, nothing else.
A: English – it’s that simple when you know its rules!
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!