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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?

  • 7
    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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    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
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    @Konrad Rudolph: There is an obvious relation. Apostrophe-s indicates possession, so the possession of "it" should intuitively be "it's" just as the possession of "Sally" should be "Sally's". – tenfour Feb 28 '11 at 18:35
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    @Konrad: Actually, I'd disagree with that statement. At least to native speakers, the words are taught distinctly, but the way things are taught leads to the same spelling. @tenfour's description is in fact what happens; we're taught in early grade school that we add "'s", "s'", or "'" to words to form possessives, and we are taught (completely separately) that "it's" is a contraction. The whole business of what irregular possessives are isn't touched upon until later in Middle and High school grades -- because to native speakers these words don't seem irregular. (At least where I'm from) – Billy ONeal Feb 28 '11 at 19:46
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It's not about a contraction "winning" over a possessive. "Its" is the possessive form of "it", like "his" is of "he", "her" 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
  • Although one can't help but notice the coincidence that, indeed, pronouns do not tend to require an apostrophe at all to indicate possessiveness and do also always seems to end with s. It is a pronoun, after all. I've never heard mention of this point as a known attribute of pronouns in the English language before but this seemingly coincidental observation is nonetheless worth thinking about, or looking into deeper. – Sk Johnson Dec 2 '15 at 20:34
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+50

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.

  • Just out of curiosity... does he also make a point of using the word 'tis in a substantial number of cases? – Sk Johnson Nov 15 '15 at 21:02
  • @SkJohnson: He uses 'tis on six other pages of his book—sometimes multiple times on a single page—but always in the context of quotations from famous sources (such as Shakespeare). My sense is that Churchill considered contractions to be acceptable in speech but not in exposition, so he wouldn't have had occasion to use 'tis in the course of his own original writing in the book. The words "it is" occur many, many times in the book. – Sven Yargs Nov 15 '15 at 21:36
  • Ah, I think I see what you mean but would like you to verify whether I do. I think you're saying that: No one would ever intentionally compose a speech (or anything that was to be circulated into publication) with the construction of 'Tis written into its text; They would, instead, write out the normal English form of It is leaving the application of 'Tis strictly for cases of either the spoken form of a written piece of text, or after the fact, as a kind of partial paraphrasing of quoted material. Do I understand you correctly? – Sk Johnson Dec 2 '15 at 18:16
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    @RobbieGoodwin: It seems likely to me that T.O. Churchill was complaining about a switch in popular spoken English that was on its way toward rendering 'tis archaic and it's standard. His choice to blame printers for not refusing to use the spelling it's for anything but a possessive pronoun seems odd until you consider that he may have been using printers the way we use publishers today. The collective weight of printers' house styles may well have played a significant role in how the changed spellings played out. ... – Sven Yargs Mar 20 '17 at 21:51
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    ... In any case, to the extent that your comment is a criticism of the reasoning underlying Churchill's argument, I don't think you and I disagree. – Sven Yargs Mar 20 '17 at 21:51
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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.

  • 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

protected by Community Dec 28 '17 at 15:26

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