While its and it’s are pronounced the same, the key difference between its and it’s is that it’s uses an apostrophe to infer the contraction of “it has” or “it is.” Its is only used as a possessive determiner, which means it either refers to something else or it conveys how something belongs to another.
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Its and it’s are famously confused for one another but learning their correct usage is essential for clear and concise language. It’s and its are homophones, which are two words that sound the same in parts of speech but have different meanings.
How do you use it’s and its?
When it is used as an impersonal pronoun, the word its is used to infer possession. Unlike other possessive words, the word its is an exception to grammar rules because it does not use an apostrophe. Its works similarly to his, her, and their because they do not require an apostrophe either.
The word it’s is simply a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” It’s is commonly used in the present tense to describe a state of being. For example,
“It is sunny outside.” → “It’s sunny outside.” “It has a four-wheel drive.” → “It’s a four-wheel drive.”
Its is an adjective that refers only to itself and is specifically used to describe a possessive noun. For example,
“A Tesla drives on its own,” “The cat is licking its paws.”
Although it’s not an official grammar rule, academic editors recommend omitting the contracted form of it’s for formal essay writing. Using contractions is considered informal and avoiding by using “it is” or “it has,” instead. Neither its or it’s are used at the end of a sentence, although the word “it” is acceptable when posed as a question. For example, it’s common to hear people ask, “where is it?”
It is a personal pronoun
The word its is an example of a possessive pronoun, which evolves from the personal pronoun of “it.” Since a pronoun is used to replace a noun or noun phrase, a personal pronoun does the same in context to a person (and sometimes animals). Examples of personal pronouns include:
As a personal pronoun, it can be used in the following examples:
“It doesn’t matter,”
“Do you know where it went?”
Note on the usage of “it” as a personal pronoun: The word “it” can be used to replace improper nouns, such as inanimate objects or ideas. Referring to people (he/she/they/them in the form of “it” is considered very rude by English native speakers because “it” is typically reserved to refer toward objects of insignificance. It is not acceptable to refer to somebody’s non-gendered pronoun of “they/them” as “it/its,” unless they say otherwise.
Its is a possessive pronoun
Possessive pronouns are used to express ownership of something. Personal pronouns take on a possessive form when they take on the possession of something. For example:
It → Its: “I watered the plant, but its leaves fell off.”
You → Your: “Do you know where your parents are?”
We → Our: “We don’t know where our parents are today.”
They → Their: “They don’t know where their parents are today.”
Within these examples, the leaves and parents are plural nouns in possession of the personal pronouns. In the case of the leaves, it was replaced by “the plant,” because without a direct reference to the possessive determiner, the sentence’s context is difficult to comprehend. In either case, the possessive pronoun form of the personal pronoun is used directly before the subject of possession.
It’s is a possessive determiner
The contraction of has is and it is to it’s is used in a sentence to replace improper nouns with possessive pronouns. Native English speakers often use it’s to replace an introductory phrase such as “this is” or “it is.” For example:
“This is her house” → “It’s her house.” “It is her house” → “It’s her house.”
If the context of “her house” is already is known, one can use “it” in place of the house and say “it’s hers,” instead.
The etymology of its and it’s
The words its, it, and thereof have existed as impartial pronouns since in the late Sixteenth Century. Prior to its as a pronoun, Middle English speakers used his as the first neutral pronoun before grammarians decided there needed to be a way to distinguish gendered people and things from another.
Since 1555, the English language has used the words it’s and its synonymously until it’s began taking the place of ‘tis in American English during the Eighteenth Century. Other sources claim the apostrophe in it’s became faux pas in the early Nineteenth Century, however, due to the omission of all apostrophes within personal pronouns.
FAQ: Related terms
What is a contraction?
A simple way to remember the difference between its and it’s is to think of contractions as pregnant words. In regards to English grammar, contractions are the convergence of two words into one. In terms of pregnancy, however, contractions occur before childbirth, and one person becomes two people (and sometimes three or more). Think of the word “contraction” as reverse pregnancy: If “it” can be “it is” when spoken fully, the contracted version of it’s is okay to use instead.
Similar contractions to it’s include:
You’re (you are)
They’re (they are)
Isn’t (is not)
Haven’t (have not)
I’m (I am)
Didn’t (did not)
Choose the right form of it’s and its:
_______ been a nice day.
_______ okay to Google the basic rules of grammar.
Does the cat know _______ having a good day?
_______ not you, _______ me.
_______ raining in Oregon and _______ rivers are full.
“Pronouns.” World Heritage Encylopedia, World Book Library, 2019.
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Alanna Madden is a freelance writer and editor from Portland, Oregon. Alanna specializes in data and news reporting and enjoys writing about art, culture, and STEM-related topics. I can be found on Linkedin.