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While I know technically the English language has a distinction because when there's a conflict between the possessive form and a contraction, the contraction wins. That is:

  • Its is the possessive form of it—and this will presumably be followed by some form of noun spec or something.
  • It's is short for "it is" or "it has" (as in "it's been years since...").

The rule of thumb I use to remember this is that it follows the same pattern as whose and who's, for which the correct use is much more obvious.

While technically I see why there's (ha ha) a distinction, I can't think of any case why it really needs to be there, because for every use of either construct, the meaning intended is usually (if not always) obvious from context. Case in point: many questions and answers written on the Stack Exchange network are written incorrectly, yet nobody notices or cares. (Usually in my case, I default to "it's" then realize I screwed up)

As a single word, I could see why it'd be ambiguous, but I don't see why in typical prose it would matter.

Is there a specific reason for this in earlier dialects of English, or specific cases where choosing the incorrect form leads to lack of understanding of a particular sentence?

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I see a potential problem that creates a garden path sentence, as in "Its running away made me sad", which would initially be interpreted as "It is running away...?". However, I'm not sure that's important enough to cause this. –  waiwai933 Feb 18 '11 at 4:39
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Argument ad absurdum: Why is there a distinction between "her" and "here"? You could tell which one is intended from the context, no? In other words, if you have two different words that happen to look similar, that still doesn't change the fact that they are different in meaning. –  Piskvor Feb 18 '11 at 10:55
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Written language is (most times and places) subservient to spoken. "Her" and "here" are different spoken words, so it is helpful (not essential but helpful) for them to be spelt differently. "Its" and "it's" are indistinguishable in speech (and pretty well never confused). While you can probably construct cases of ambiguity, they're vanishingly rare, and garden-path examples I'm sure are not particularly likely (note that Waiwai's example used the "its + gerund" construction, which is rather literary.) I have long argued that the apostrophe almost never serves any useful purpose in English. –  Colin Fine Feb 18 '11 at 15:30
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I actually don’t understand the question. There is simply no relation between the two, their similarity is pure coincidence, the rules when to use what are clear and unambiguous so why would there ever be any question which to use? –  Konrad Rudolph Feb 18 '11 at 15:38
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You can't really say that nobody notices. I notice every time. And I certainly care. I rarely care enough to fix it by itself, but if I'm editing a question or answer for other purposes, I'll fix spelling and punctuation, too (assuming I'm allowed to edit at all). –  Rob Kennedy Feb 18 '11 at 17:24

3 Answers 3

up vote 26 down vote accepted

It's not about a contraction "winning" over a possessive. "Its" is the possessive form of "it", like "his" is of "he", "hers" is of "she" or "their" is of "they". There is no missing apostrophe; the forms go back to a time when English was a highly inflected language. It predates modern, or even Middle, English.

The possessive formed by the apostrophe+s construct is a more modern, uninflected, less-marked form. There are only a very few commonly used words -- pronouns -- that still use the older forms. Markedness tends to survive in words that are used very frequently, even when other aspects of the language are losing their markedness. It's the same reason why we still say "men, women and children" rather than "mans, womans and childs" when the plural ess marker is nearly universal in the rest of the language.

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I hate to say it, but this answer is actually wrong. Possessive it's is venerable, it is the original form of its. And it does not predate Middle English. See Etymonline: "late 16c., from it + 's, gen. or possessive ending, to replace his [genitive of hit, cf. Dutch het, W.Frisian hit ] as the neuter possessive pronoun. Originally written it's, and still deliberately spelled thus by some writers until early 1800s". Wiktionary has a cite from 1603. –  RegDwigнt Apr 14 '11 at 20:58
    
But he's right about the fact that very frequent words tend to have irregular forms, and that's probably a key factor in why there would be an irregular its form. Basically, its probably wouldn't have developed if it hadn't been an extremely frequent word to begin with. So that much is right. –  Kosmonaut May 6 '11 at 14:59
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-1 There is, in fact, a missing apostrophe. The possessive form originally had an apostrophe, being formed in the same way as one's. english.stackexchange.com/questions/22603/… The word his was originally used for inanimate objects. –  endolith Oct 28 '11 at 20:05

There is something to add here. You can tell a person's age with regard to this one, because older books use "it's" as a possessive. A friend, a few years older than I (I'm almost 50) showed me this in her college grammar book, dated about 1965 or so. The rule was updated somewhere around that time so that "its" became the sole possessive, while "it's" became a contraction only. When I see a good writer who frequently uses "it's" as the possessive, I check his/her age and am almost always correct that it is someone over the age of 60. It is often seen in the original unedited versions of classics. The online book "The Grammar of English Grammars," written c. 1852, agrees.

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So in fact, there are not 2 but 3 different cases. –  ogerard Apr 14 '11 at 23:04
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etymonline.com/index.php?term=its says that "it's" is the original form, but that it changed in the 1800s. What makes you think it changed in the 1950s? –  endolith Apr 25 '11 at 16:26
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I appreciate the source. Perhaps it took that long to percolate down from the authorities to the teachers? Until it was "universal." Is it now universal? –  shipr Apr 26 '11 at 7:15

T. O. Churchill, A Grammar of the English Language (1823) identifies two somewhat surprising culprits as being responsible for the deplorable rise of the apostropheless its: printers, and English speakers who inexcusably use of the wrong contraction for "it is." Here is Churchill's argument:

The word it's in particular, is now generally robbed of the apostrophe by printers ; so that we seldom find it with the sign of the possessive case, which it unquestionably is ; unless when an author is determined to persevere in the right, in spite of a silly practice.

...

Some, very improperly, use it's instead of 'tis, for the contraction of it is: and hence many profess to omit the apostrophe in the possessive case it's, lest it should be confounded with a word, that ought never to occur.

Throughout his book, Churchill demonstrates what perseverance in the right looks like, sparing no effort to keep the raft of correctness afloat in a hostile sea of actual usage by always using it's (with an apostrophe) as the possessive form of it, and by never using it's as a contraction.

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