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I know that its is the possessive and it's is the contraction, and know when to use them. But why doesn't the possessive have an apostrophe?

  • "The bear's eating a fish." [contraction]
  • "The bear's coat is brown." [possessive]
  • "It's eating a fish." [contraction]
  • "Its coat is brown." [possessive]
  • "One's eating a fish." [contraction]
  • "One's coat is brown." [possessive]

Wiktionary lists the etymology as "From it +‎ 's", and Online Etymology Dictionary says that this is actually the original form:

Originally written it's, and still deliberately spelled thus by some writers until early 1800s.

So what happened to the apostrophe? When did people stop using it, and why did they?

It seems that it's as the possessive is more natural, as most people do this until they're taught that it is wrong (or even after).

Update: Online Etymology Dictionary has been updated to include two potential explanations:

The apostrophe came to be omitted, perhaps because it's already was established as a contraction of it is, or by general habit of omitting apostrophes in personal pronouns (hers, yours, theirs, etc.).

Can anyone back up either of these arguments? The possessive one's still has the apostrophe, despite these.

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possible duplicate of Why is there a distinction between "its" and "it's"? – MrHen Apr 25 '11 at 18:05
@MrHen: the accepted answer to that question doesn't answer this one, in fact it contradicts the evidence presented here. – RegDwigнt Apr 25 '11 at 18:19
Also check here for a similar question. – boehj May 28 '11 at 5:51
I better point out as a Wiktionary contributor myself that it is just a wiki that anybody can edit much like here anybody can answer. We never have had any contributors who are trained in etymology or lexicography. We try our best but we don't claim to be authoritative. – hippietrail May 28 '11 at 7:58
+1 for giving sufficient background that my first guess at an explanation was rendered invalid before I finished reading the question. – Ryan Reich May 28 '11 at 12:46
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Professor David Crystal explains it in his book The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left (Crystal 2006), pp. 134-135:

Its is just as possessive as cat's, but it doesn't have an apostrophe. Why not? Because the printers and grammarians [of the nineteenth century - Alex B.] never thought the matter through [emphasis mine - Alex B.]. They applied their rule to nouns and forgot about pronouns, thus creating an exception (along with the food is hers, ours, yours, theirs) without realizing it. And even if they had noticed, they wouldn't have done anything about it, for it's was already taken, as it were, as the abbreviation of it is.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in languages. 

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Here are some possessive pronouns:

  • My neighbour
  • Your friend
  • His wife
  • Her dog
  • Its tail

None of these have apostrophes. See Martin Beckett's answer for the rest.

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That doesn't explain why "its" used to have an apostrophe and no longer does. "His" was "originally also the neut. possessive pronoun, but replaced in that sense c.1600 by its." etymonline.com/index.php?term=his – endolith Apr 25 '11 at 18:26
I agree with this. If you consult Fowler's Modern English Usage you'll see that the pronoun "it" is included with all other pronouns and not given a possessive apostrophe (see page 303) books.google.com/… – MaQleod Apr 25 '11 at 18:53
I don't buy this argument. Where would you even put an apostrophe in her? The possessive adjectives in modern English are my, your, his, her, its, our, their and whose. But its is the only one in the list constructed by combining the pronoun with 's. If it was removed purely for consistency like this, it would seem to be a case of hypercorrection. – endolith Apr 25 '11 at 21:15
Ah, there is one other possessive produced by combining a pronoun with 's: one's still keeps the apostrophe. – endolith Apr 26 '11 at 1:55
I agree with @endolith. My, your, and his are all separate words to me, you, and him. If those first three didn't exist, you'd expect to see me's, you's, and him's instead. Its is directly from 'it' + a possessive s, so there's no valid comparison with the other possessive pronouns. – Cam Jackson Dec 14 '11 at 22:45

I was told that the possessive apostrophe was originally a contraction.

"The bear's coat" was originally "the bear his coat" and the apostrophe appeared as the his was gradually shortened — so it would make sense that it is had an apostrophe but its didn't.

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That's cool. Kind of like how "then" became "than". "The bear is bigger, then the bee" → "The bear is bigger than the bee". etymonline.com/index.php?term=than – endolith Apr 25 '11 at 18:06
'The 18th century explanation that the apostrophe might replace a genitive pronoun, as in "the king’s horse" being a shortened form of "the king, his horse", is doubtful. This "his genitive" appears in English only for a relatively brief time, and was never the most common form.' en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genitive_case en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_genitive – endolith Apr 25 '11 at 18:23
I had heard that it was originally "the beares coat" and the e was replaced with an apostrophe. the '-es' ending being the Old English declension representing the possessive form for masculine and neuter nouns. – Chris Cudmore Feb 24 '12 at 14:45

protected by RegDwigнt Feb 15 '12 at 22:38

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