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We use apostrophes to denote ownership:

I wrapped the cat's claws so he wouldn't scratch me while I handled him.

However, we don't use an apostrophe when 'it' is the owner.

The cat licked its claws.

This seems inconsistant - the claws belong to it, it being the cat.

Is there some formal reason, or a decision in the formation of language where this came to be?

marked as duplicate by anongoodnurse, Robusto, tchrist, choster, Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 14 '14 at 0:07

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    There's no particular good reason. It's just the crazy way we write English. Apostrophes aren't pronounced, so we can't tell the difference between it's and its in real language. This means that apostrophe placement in spelling is arbitrary, and this can be verified by noting how often they're misplaced in writing. I wouldnt use them at all if I werent in the habit. They're like cufflinks and tie clips -- stylish in certain contexts, but a pain in the ass elsewhere. – John Lawler Aug 13 '14 at 23:23
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    @JohnLawler: Tell me you don't wear a tie clip. Seriously. – Robusto Aug 13 '14 at 23:54
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    @Mark: Commas can be heard, but apostrophe's are silent. Q.E.D. Oh, and I don't wear a tie clip seriously. – John Lawler Aug 13 '14 at 23:57
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    @JohnLawler I keep telling them that apostrophes are silent, but they’ve been so misundereducated that they nearly always insist that an apostrophe can be pronounced /əz/. Drives me crazy. – tchrist Aug 14 '14 at 0:01
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    @GeorgePompidou So you are saying that you are merely following the downvote arrow’s popup tooltip advice that “This question does not show any research effort”? :) – tchrist Aug 14 '14 at 0:07
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Because its is a possessive pronoun

My head
Your head
His head
Her head
Its head
Our heads
Your heads
Their heads

Just because its ends in an "s" doesn't mean it takes an apostrophe.
To use your example, even though the claws belong to the cat you wouldn't write:

The cat licked hi's claws.

Similarly, you don't write:

The cat licked it's claws.

Additional info

'It' has a number of different meanings and it's easy to confuse them. The easiest way to understand its role is to replace it with a similar 'place' word to understand the pattern.

Where am I? - I am here.
Where are you? - You are here.
Where is he/she/it? - He/she/it is here.

Your example I looked at it shows a different function:

You looked at me
I looked at you
I looked at him/her/it

So you can see that it can be replaced by he/she or by him/her depending on the construction of the sentence.

In your original sentence its can only be replaced by my/your/his/her/our/your/their. None of these takes an apostrophe, and neither does its.

  • Just as an example of how terrible some people can be at learning English or just paying attention to details: cl.ly/WOtT – Neeku Aug 13 '14 at 23:27
  • I'm not sure I buy this. There's no such thing as a singular 'hi' (I guess there is a 'he' or 'him'). Consider - There was a newspaper on the table. I looked at it. I filled in its crossword. – dwjohnston Aug 13 '14 at 23:27
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    You don't have to 'buy' it, I'm not making it up :). A standard English grammar book would tell you the same. I know there's no such word as 'hi' - that's my point. 'His' and 'its' fulfil the same function. Just because they happen to end in 's' doesn't mean they take an apostrophe. I'll edit my answer to add more explanation. – Mynamite Aug 13 '14 at 23:32
  • No, that its is not a “possessive pronoun”; it’s a possessive determiner. There are actually two words spelled its, where one is an actual substantive and the other is not. The first is from the possessive pronoun set: mine, thine, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs, while the second is from the possessive determiner set: my, thy, his, her, its, our, your, their. Not counting the old mine eyes and thine honor sandhi thing, the only other overlap that occurs in both sets besides its is his. – tchrist Aug 13 '14 at 23:56
  • @tchrist You're right, I am getting my terms confused, however I think thrust of my answer stands! – Mynamite Aug 13 '14 at 23:59

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