Homophones confuse some people and annoy others. I often see people online complaining about other people who can’t differentiate between the spellings of homophones like your and you’re; they’re, their, and there, and of course, its and it’s.
While I find these mistakes mildly annoying, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call them pet peeves, and I don’t feel any particular urge to vent or publicly complain about other people’s ability to spell (unless I’m discussing the quality of education in my country).
Just because the confusion of its and it’s makes me crinkle my nose a little does not mean that if I see this mistake I’m going to stop reading your blog or throw your novel into the recycling bin. It’s really not that big of a deal and is exactly the kind of typo that’s outweighed by good, strong writing.
However, I feel that writers need to take a little pride in their work. That means learning how to spell small, three-letter words correctly.
But I get it. Its and it’s are among the most difficult homophones to learn. I remember back in high school, I avoided using them altogether — simply because I was too lazy to look them up. To make matters even more confusing, these two rebellious homophones thwart the standard rules of good grammar and proper English.
Its and It’s
According to Wikipedia, the word it is a “third-person singular neuter (it) – used for objects and animals whose sex is unknown and as a dummy subject, e.g. ‘It is raining.'”
One of the most common spelling mistakes known to the English language occurs when people try to add possession or pluralization to the word it. Interestingly, this word cannot be pluralized, but it can be paired with the word is (it is) and then contracted (it’s).
Confused yet? Let’s clarify.
Its: the Exception to the Rule
Normally we add an s to words that we want to pluralize, and we add an apostrophe-s to show possession. A third form is adding an s followed by an apostrophe to show plural possession.
Plural: girls (more than one girl)
Possessive: girl’s (belonging to a girl)
Plural Possessive: girls’ (belonging to all the girls)
Luckily, it is always singular, so we need not ever worry about making it plural. There’s no such thing as “more than one it” (we would forgo it and use them or they). That means we can also skip over the plural possession of it entirely.
But what about when it owns something?
You’d expect that to show ownership, you’d simply add apostrophe-s to the word it. But that’s not the case. As I mentioned earlier, it has chosen to ignore the normal rules of grammar. So we do it in reverse.
When it owns something, we add the s without the apostrophe, and we get its.
There is the car. It has wheels. Its wheels are round.
See? No apostrophe when something belongs to it.
The word it’s is neither plural nor possessive. When the apostrophe-s is added to the word it, you’ve got a contraction, or a joining of two words. In this case, the phrase it is is being shortened or contracted: it’s.
If you have a hard time remembering this, try saying your sentence or phrase by replacing its or it’s with it is. If it is works, then you have a contraction and the apostrophe is required. If not, then you have possession and just an s, without the apostrophe, will do.
Its and It’s
Got any handy tips for remembering the difference between its and it’s? Are there any homophones that constantly confuse you? How about ones that grate on your nerves when others use them incorrectly? Talk about it in the comments.
Beautiful prose and I like the way you winded around back to your point and lessons.
One thing I’ve noticed is that although I may know some of the rules, something happens between me and the output. A friend mailed me the other day about some typos I had in a post. Interestingly, the source was right (well, correct if I want to be technically accurate.) The translation was wrong. Something about the CSS placed apostrophes in the wrong places and it was really weird. So weird that I had to send my friend screen captures to show that it wasn’t me, but the tools. Sometimes auto-magic completions and auto-correctors and auto-magic translations and transforms get in the way. Other times, I just mess up 😉
Oh yeah. I’ve seen that on several blogs (I think even my own) where the code goes out of order and displays funky punctuation. I notice it a lot with apostrophes. I wonder what causes that – seems like something that should be ironed out by now.
I think it might have something to do with how things are taught as well.
“It’s” should be taught along with “they’re”, “I’m”, “there’s”, “you’re” etc. Then it will be more clear why it’s spelled that way. If, however, it’s taught with something like “Mary’s”, “Peter’s”, it will be more confusing.
Get these things straight or SAT II will get you! Hehe.
Good point, Kelvin. Yes, I think one of the problems is that these homophone spellings are simply not being taught in school, which is a shame. I know good grammar is not the be-all-end-all of knowledge, but even for non-writers, these types of mistakes can affect how people perceive you and whether or not you get a job (i.e. poor spelling on a resume).
Makes perfect sense to me! I’ve got a whole BUNCH of grammatical pet peeves (grin). (And yes, it’s/its is one of them … but then, I wrote that post months ago!
Heheh. One of these days one of us should do a post on grammatical pet peeves. It could be a long one!
I think the mix up in the usage of it’s and its, their and they’re and others like these, distracts the reader from the content. When you put your writing out there for everyone to read, I think you need put some effort into getting it right grammatically.
What bugs me most is when teachers make those mistakes. That’s just not right.
Absolutely! I always get snagged on grammar and spelling errors when I’m reading. Sure, there are a few gifted writers who are so mesmerizing that I may barely notice typos and minor mistakes, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Teachers should definitely know this stuff. No question about that.
Because your Vietnamese student is trying to learn the language. Americans aren’t.
I have to agree with you, Gabriel.
I thought I had it all understood, then I got completely confused. What I was taught was the last paragraph you wrote, which put my mind back at ease. As far as I know (or can remember), I never had any problems with these words… hopefully I’m not jinxing myself and I’m writing the wrong “its” a lot more than I used to now that I said that.
My writing pet peeve is punctuations. Or the lack of them. Mostly in text messages and emails. A friend sent me an email from another friend that contained about 15 different thoughts/sentences/phrases but contained only 1 (one) period. And it wasn’t at the end of the “paragraph.” I almost started writing on my screen with a red marker.
I taught high school English as First Language in South Africa for five years. A question about “it’s” and “its” has appeared in EVERY final exam paper since 2006, so I also asked it in every other test I set my learners, revised it every term for every grade, and still 90% of my learners answered it incorrectly every time. I’m sorry to say, for me this particular error is my biggest pet peeve, along with people using ” ‘s” to create plurals in English.
According to the grammar reference I used, “it” does not get the apostrophe for possession, as “it” is a pronoun and the apostrophe rule only applies to nouns. Likewise, “he”, “she”, “you”, etc. do not get an apostrophe, but you rather use the possessive form of the pronoun: “his”, “hers”, “yours”, etc. Explained this way, “it” isn’t necessarily the exception to the rule, but rather falls under a different set of rules.
Of course, my learners (none of whom actually spoke English as first language) had trouble differentiating between a noun and a verb, never mind a noun and a pronoun.
These two homophones go against expectations, so it’s not surprising to me that people have a hard time with them.
“Homophones confuse some people and annoy others.” Love that! It’s soooo true! Homophones confuse and annoy me because I can’t get them right 🙂 Thanks for these helpful tips!
It just takes a little practice 😉
Good post, Melissa!
Oddly, I can forgive its v it’s. That’s simply a missing apostrophe. But the rest of the list upsets my apple cart. Particularly when I see college students or, horror of all horrors, a teacher misuse them. I’ve seen our and hour, sail and sale, among others, swapped in my local newspaper. Each time, I’m sorely tempted to get out my red pen and mail the results to the publisher/senior editor.
If you’re seeing it in your local newspaper, there’s a good chance it’s just a typo, not a writer who doesn’t know the difference. I know the difference between these homophones and I sometimes end up with typos. That’s why editing is so important!
I’m afraid I’m in the ‘annoy’ category. There’s no excuse for getting wrong, especially by an author. Peek and peak often get confused, along with compliment and complement. Use a dictionary for heaven’s sake. I even came across our’s and their’s. Even if such errors are overlooked by authors, they shouldn’t by missed by decent editors.
That’s ‘be missed’. Apologies.
You have to admit, that’s kind of funny. I think the excuse for getting them wrong is that we all make mistakes sometimes.
As a new writer, I still get them mixed up. This article is really good. I think it might finally stick in my mind!
Thanks, Aleishia. I’m glad you found this article helpful!
Thanks for the very enlightening posting! Now i am confused much more. Lol No, sorry! I never before had thoughts about using homophones correctly. But you are right, we should give them a chance, to be used the right way. Best wishes, Michael