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A friend posed the following word puzzle to me:

Can you think of a sentence that keeps the same meaning whether you use "it's" or "its"?

He asserted that this puzzle does in fact have a solution. However, it has me completely stumped. I tried to solve an easier problem, to find a sentence which is still grammatical if you change an "its" to "it's", but all I could come up with is examples like "It's light!" (which is, strictly, more of a sentence fragment).

What is the solution to the word puzzle? Or, is there some way I can "prove" that the puzzle should have no solution?

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closed as off-topic by tchrist, Josh61, FumbleFingers, Robusto, Mitch Jul 28 at 16:15

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How bout your and you're, their and they're? Same structures, after all. –  John Lawler Jul 26 at 20:20
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If you could find a solution for those word pairs, then it should be possible to adjust the solution to use "it's"/"its", right? –  nneonneo Jul 26 at 20:24
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The boxed sentence in your question is already an example. –  guest Jul 26 at 21:07
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This question appears to be off-topic because it’s included its own answer in the very question itself, and therefore no further answer is required given the existence proof embedded in the question. –  tchrist Jul 26 at 21:31
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@guest: that sentence doesn't use "it's" or "its" at all, it mentions them ;-) But more to the point, the sentence only keeps its meaning if you change both, not if you change one. So it doesn't keep its meaning whether you use "it's" or "its", it keeps its meaning provided you have exactly one of each. The questioner has changed the puzzle in transcribing it to the question title. –  Steve Jessop Jul 27 at 14:43

14 Answers 14

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I gather from previous answers that there are two ways in which this question can go—either we interpret it strictly, and don't make assumptions about what it's asking, or we interpret it loosely.

If we interpret it loosely, we can bend the rules a bit:

  • As in the Hans Adler's answer, which I was picking on earlier, we can interpret "same meaning" more loosely. In this case, the solution works well (and I'm sure there are more that work even better) wherein one sentence indicates that you see the tree's apples, and one indicates you see that the fruit which the tree bears is the apple. We can also use a construction (I took this idea from another answer) like:

    "I cannot comprehend it's red." = "I cannot comprehend its red."

  • A sneaky solution can be to put "its" and "it's" in quotes in the sentence, to come up with something like:

    "I wrote a sentence with 'it's' and 'its' in it." = "I wrote a sentence with 'its' and 'it's' in it."

  • We can spell something incorrectly, as Hans Adler ironically points out in the most downvoted answer.

  • Or, as my girlfriend suggested, we can replace the "it" in the contraction "it's" with a proper noun (like that clever guy Stephen King did), making "it's" refer to something that belongs to someone or something named It. In this case the solution becomes again trivial, since "its" is also a possessive.

    "This clown is named It. It's nose is red." = "This clown is named It. Its nose is red"

(we sadly, in the last case, refer to a clown as an object, but it does have the same meaning)

Alternatively

All of these answers, to me, are trivial and make the puzzle somewhat boring. If we don't want the puzzle to be boring, we can't cut corners. In this case, as a few have pointed out, it is most likely impossible.

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Making "it's" refer to something that belongs to "it" by forcing "`s" to function as a suffix denoting possession in singular noun is indeed a smart solution. And I believe it is the only solution in which the two sentences will have the exact same meaning. –  0a -archy Jul 26 at 21:52
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The clown solution is certainly the best so far. Maybe make it a clown doll so it is the right pronoun? Or another variant: "The name of Santa's little known second reindeer is It. It[']s nose is as red as Rudolph's." –  Hans Adler Jul 26 at 21:57
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A solid answer and +1 for that. I would add another possibility of cutting corners: going further back. I.e. making use of the fact that the riddle fails to specify we have to use contemporary orthography. The original spelling of its is it's, and indeed just half a dozen decades ago or so that was very much the only spelling that was taught as correct. Its without an apostrophe is a very recent invention. (Look no further than Jane Austen to find things like her's and your's, too.) –  RegDwigнt Jul 26 at 23:02
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"Its nose is red" does not have the same meaning as "It's nose is red". "Its nose is red" means something more : that the clown is a thing and not a person. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Jul 27 at 13:27
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Another technique for your list: have other words in the sentence that can change grammatical rôle. Steve Bennett’s answer gives an example which changes meaning, but is at least grammatical both ways: “I want to hold the cat before it[’]s shot.” I can’t quite see how to adapt this to one without a change of meaning, but it seems hopeful! –  PLL Jul 28 at 10:45

The following took me about two minutes, so I wouldn't be surprised if it can be improved:

"I can never remember what kind of fruits the tree in my garden has - until I look out of the window and see it[']s apples."

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And when you think of the version with the apostrophe, are you thinking of the sentence "I can never remember what kind of fruits the tree in my garden has - until I look out of the window and see it is apples." or something that actually makes grammatical sense? –  Pharap Jul 27 at 17:27
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For what it’s worth, I think this answer is clever and I enjoyed reading it. I prefer the looser solution to the rigid but boring ones. –  user77595 Jul 28 at 0:07

Well I came up with two strategies:

1) find descriptive adjectives for X that also, as a noun, are what X is:

I wait at the light until I see it's/its green.

I examine the shirt and notice it's/its cotton.

2) shift the referent of 'it', without changing the practical meaning:

That thing that every family wants, it's/its happiness.

The thing that excites me the most when I see a work of art, it's/its beauty.

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I like the last solution. Not the most exact same meaning, but the most creative solution. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Jul 28 at 12:44

This is what I can think of...

Although he has read about the color of blood being red, being a visually impaired person since birth, he cannot comprehend it[']s red. Why can't it be blue or something?

But the two sentences have slightly different meanings. One is that he cannot comprehend the fact of blood being red, the other is that he cannot comprehend the color of blood, red.

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Out of every answer in which meanings slightly differ, I think I like this one the most. –  George Pompidou Jul 26 at 21:41
    
I like this answer. This is a realistic use. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Jul 27 at 13:34
    
For me, the "its [adjective]" structure is very unnatural. The phrase "he cannot comprehend its red" is really only valid in poetry - in speech you'd use "its redness". –  Steve Bennett Jul 28 at 3:13
    
@SteveBennett - Let's say fun. We say it's fun and its fun. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Jul 28 at 12:42
    
Ok, sure, fun is a noun is the second one. (From memory it was a noun before it became an adjective.) OTOH, "its fun" doesn't sound right to me at all. –  Steve Bennett Jul 29 at 2:52

There's a very obvious solution. Here's the question:

Can you think of a sentence that keeps the same meaning whether you use "it's" or "its"?

And here is the answer:

Can you think of a sentence that keeps the same meaning whether you use "its" or "it's"?

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Hm, and how does this differ from George's answer from yesterday? –  Mr Lister Jul 28 at 7:39

What can you tell me about the state of the golf place? Its green, it's green. It's green, its green.

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I think this is the best answer so far. –  user36720 Jul 28 at 15:30
    
This is a very good, down-to-earth answer. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Jul 31 at 18:16

I can think of something the same as you.

"I see a fruit bowl and it[']s orange"

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Good, but it actually does not convey the same meaning in the two forms. However, it does resolve the minor puzzle. –  nneonneo Jul 26 at 20:19
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Yes, I realised that after I re-read your question... –  ZenLogic Jul 26 at 20:20

I don't have a complete answer, but what about a sentence like "I want to hold the cat before its/it's shot." That is, pairing "its [noun]" with "it is [past participle]".

Also pointing out that in some Englishes, you could interpret "it's" as "it has".

EDIT

Or a slightly more grammatically correct variation on Hans Adler's: "It's not architecture that makes this town special, but something different: It[']s community".

To me, that scans very naturally with or without the apostrophe, and the difference in meaning is only very subtle. (Replacing 'community' with 'people' reads even better but the difference is greater.)

Another solution:

"Is it the monster's treasure or something different that you crave? It[']s treasure."

Again, both versions read very well for me, and minimal difference in meaning.

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I liked the smell of the cooked meat until I noticed (it's/its) fat.

:)

       

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meat is fat v. meat has fat? very different –  user36720 Jul 28 at 15:31
    
    
@HansAdler It is fat. Who ever said it has? Mean is lean, mean is fat... it's used like this in English, right? - Non native speaker... wouldn't know. –  CodeAngry Jul 28 at 19:21
    
@CodeAngry: That was obviously a response to djechlin's objection. "It is fat" = "The meat is fat". "Its [= the meat's] fat" = The meat has fat. I merely pointed out that "It's fat" has an alternative reading as "It has fat" = "The meat has fat", in which case the meanings are not so "very different", after all. –  Hans Adler Jul 28 at 19:46
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@djechlin I would try to explain why fat works in this context and watch is... not a smart example but I can easily tell I'd be wasting my time. When you call a person fat... I bet you mean "HE IS FAT!". –  CodeAngry Aug 5 at 9:01

By stripping "its"' and "it's" of their meanings, "'Its' is a word." and "'It's' is a word." both seem to work.

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This is correct BUT the sentences have different meanings. If you want to be a smartass it's more like "two words have three letters in the order seen in 'its'" if you change between its/it's the meaning is absolutely, unequivocally, metaphysically the same –  Joe Blow Jul 28 at 12:14
    
"It's" is not a word. These are two words. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Jul 28 at 12:48
    
@Nicolas: "It's" is the contraction of two words and, as such, can be considered to be a single word. From: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contraction_(grammar): "In traditional grammar, contraction can denote the formation of a new word from one word or a group of words, for example, by elision." The elision, in this case, being the omission of the second 'i', which rendered a new, monosyllabic word. –  EM Fields Jul 28 at 22:16
    
@Joe Blow: I disagree in that I don't see different meanings since the adjective, "word" is stripping 'its' and 'it's' of their meanings by describing them both as just words. Perhaps, had I written: " 'Its' / 'it's' is a word." my meaning would have been made less confusing. –  EM Fields Jul 28 at 22:51
    
Hi EM. "Ford is a car" "Chevy is a car" They are different sentences with different meanings. –  Joe Blow Jul 29 at 9:53

Here’s an example sentence meeting your criterion:

I can’t figure out how to use the word it’s correctly.

Edit because "the word" is causing issue with some people:

I can't figure out how to use it's properly.

I can't figure out whether to use its or it's in this context.

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Indeed, you can't figure. "It's" is not a word, they are two words. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Jul 27 at 13:36
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@NicolasBarbulesco Nonsense: it’s isn’t two words. –  tchrist Jul 27 at 14:05
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A variant that avoids some of the quibbles: “I never know when to put an apostrophe in its.” –  PLL Jul 27 at 22:05
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@tchrist A contraction is a shortening of a word or a combination of words, but I see nothing in the definitions of either "word" or of "contraction" that suggests that shortening "it is" to "it's" changes the number of words, so it seems as if "it's" would still be two words. That said, I cannot find any source that explicitly states it doesn't change the number of words either, so you may still be right. Do you have any source? –  hvd Jul 28 at 9:41
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That said, this answer still doesn't work (unlike @PLL's variant): knowing how to use "its" correctly and knowing how to use "it's" correctly are two different things. Someone who has just started learning English may be learning to use "it is" correctly, and to shorten it to "it's", yet not have covered the word "its" yet. In that context, the meaning does change if "it's" is changed to "its". –  hvd Jul 28 at 9:53

Can you replace "I'm" with "My" and retain the same meaning in a sentence, without rewording?

No.

"It's" is the third person form of "I'm". They are contractions of "It is" and "I am" respectively. "Its" is the third person form of "My".

Similarly, "You're" and "Your" are the second person forms respectively.

"They're and "Their" are the third person plural forms respectively.

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That's a good explanation of why, at first glance, the challenge might be difficult. –  Steve Bennett Jul 29 at 2:53

There are two words "its."

Note that that sentence is the answer.

or you could say

There are two "its" in English.

or even

There are two words like "its" which use the identical letters in the identical order.

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'It's just what its supposed to be.' or 'Its just what it's supposed to be.'

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Neither of those makes any sense or is grammatical… –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 26 at 20:38
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Somewhat counterintuitively, this is actually a clever solution to the problem that involves only very little cheating. Misspelled sentences can still be grammatical and have meaning when the intended words can be unambiguously identified, as in this case. Correct spelling was not explicitly part of the puzzle's specification. Therefore every sentence in which regardless of spelling only one of the words makes sense, can be considered to technically provide a solution. (I hope I don't have to explain why it's cheating, as this is quite tricky.) –  Hans Adler Jul 26 at 21:16
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It has meaning, but surely is not grammatical. –  Ben Voigt Jul 27 at 6:40

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