Its or It's: Grammar Explained by an Expert image

If you’re not sure you know the difference between “it’s” and “its” you have plenty of company. After all, they’re nearly identical and sound exactly the same—just like “your” and “you’re,” two other problematic homophones. How can anyone remember which is which?

Read on, and we’ll clear up the mystery.

Its

The word “its” is a possessive third-person-singular pronoun like “his” and “hers.” We use these kinds of pronouns to show ownership.

His and hers refer to people:

  • I found his shoes in the living room.
  • She was overjoyed to learn that the dog was hers.

Its refers to inanimate or impersonal objects:

  • The radio station has lost its license.
  • You can tell if food is fresh by its smell.

Notice that possessive nouns need an apostrophe. Possessive pronouns do not.

  • Those shoes are Sarah’s.
    Those shoes are hers.
  • The cake is Bob’s.
    The cake is his.

It’s

It’s always means “it is” or “it has.”

“It’s” is a contraction of “it,” a third-person singular pronoun, and a verb: “is” or “has.” We can create similar contractions with “he” and “she,” two other third-person-singular pronouns.

  • He’s had a very hard time.
  • She’s quite happy living here.
  • It’s great to be outside.

If you replace it’s with it is, the sentence should still make perfect sense. It not, you should probably use its, the possessive pronoun.

Apostrophe check

Here’s a trick that will help you determine if you should use “its” or “it’s.”

Remember that the apostrophe–s combination indicates the word “is.” Substitute “it is” (or “it has”) in the sentence and see if it works.

  • It’s very difficult to find parking near the library.
    It is very difficult to find parking near the library.

That works! “It’s” is correct.

  • The radio station has lost its license.
    The radio station has lost it is license. 

That doesn’t work. We don’t need the “is” indicated by the apostrophe, so “its” is correct.

This same trick can also help you decide whether “your” or “you’re” is correct. Substitute “you are” and see if the sentence works.

If you think this is difficult, Grammar Book claims that the possessive pronoun “its” was also written as “it’s” until a couple of hundred years ago, when spelling and punctuation became more standardized. Imagine how confused people were back then!

Its’

Some people accidentally put the apostrophe in the wrong place and write its’ instead of it’s. This is always incorrect. Use it’s or its depending on the situation, but never write its’ because it is always incorrect to do so.

If you’d like to do more reading on this subject, take a look at the Grammarly and Business Writing articles.

For more guidance on common word usage problems, we recommend these TCK articles:

 

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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.