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.