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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
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    @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
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    Also check here for a similar question.
    – boehj
    May 28 '11 at 5:51
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    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. May 28 '11 at 7:58
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    +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
30

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. 

Charles Fries (Fries 1927) speculates that it could also be so because "their plural forms do not end in s" (cf. one - one's - ones or other - other's - others, ft. 7)

enter image description here

For an excellent summary of how the rules concerning apostrophe use developed, see

Sklar, E. (1976). The Possessive Apostrophe: The Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark. College English, 38(2), 175-183. doi:10.2307/376342

If you want to learn more about how the grammarians of the past arbitrarily imposed their confusing rules - and didn't stick to them - see pages 197-198 in Doctrine of correctness in English usage, 1700-1800 by S.A. Leonard (Leonard 1962); for instance, Joseph Priestly argued in The rudiments of English grammar, which was published in 1772, the following (pp. 86-87):

enter image description here enter image description here

On the other hand, in the same book, on page 11, he lists all the possessive pronouns without an apostrophe and he treats its separately, as the genitive form:

enter image description here

Thirteen years later, J. Mennye in An English grammar ; being a compilation from the works of such grammarians as have acquired the approbation of the public [...] argued diametrically the opposite of the convention earlier proposed by Joseph Priestly.

But in 1823, T.O. Churchill says the following in A New Grammar of the English Language:

enter image description here enter image description here

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  • What does 'their rule' refer to in the quote above? Nov 25 '19 at 22:04
  • @xr280xr “the abbreviation of [noun] is” - what do you mean??
    – Alex B.
    Nov 26 '19 at 3:38
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    @AlexB. I think I was saying the explanation that "... even if they had noticed, they wouldn't have done anything about it, for it's was already taken ... as the abbreviation of it is" doesn't make sense because any given noun + 's was also "already taken." I.e. They chose to allow cat's to mean both possessive of the cat and "cat is". So remaining consistent, it's should've been both too.
    – xr280xr
    Nov 27 '19 at 0:06
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    Even if they could have snuck past with your’s and their’s and her’s, I find that hi’s would look really confusing, plus whatever are they going to do with mine, thine, and ourn? :)
    – tchrist
    Sep 22 '20 at 0:38
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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
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    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
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    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
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    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. Dec 14 '11 at 22:45
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    @tchrist, A quote for you from Huddleston and Pullum 2002: "The dependent and independent genitives are often analysed in traditional grammar as 'possessive adjectives' and 'possessive pronouns' respectively, but we find this an unsatisfactory way of handling the difference between the two sets of forms" (p. 471). See HP2002: 471 for reasons why that traditional distinction doesn't withstand scrutiny.
    – Alex B.
    May 22 '12 at 22:50
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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
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    '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
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    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. Feb 24 '12 at 14:45
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I read through this thread and found that you really do not have an answer. The etymology of all these words, adjectives and pronouns alike, is confusing, to say the least. Additionally, it seems that there are conflicting reasons for everything. Some say that there used to be apostrophes with certain adjectives/pronouns, and some say they never existed. But let me try to help to make this simple. First and foremost, we need to recognize the different categories we have here. We have possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns. For example, hers is a possessive pronoun, while *her" is a possessive adjective, in our current context at least. Its can technically fall within each, even though we most commonly hear/see it as being the adjective. Moving on--

So, lets look at the personal pronoun we. In no way, shape, or form would we say we's, and if you know anything about etymology, you know that "we's" or "we" does not and cannot turn into "our" or "ours". This proves that our, along with other possessive adjectives are their own words. Now, let's move to those, for a second, to further my point. It would be easy to just say "the apostrophe was omitted" in cases like "our" to "ours" and so forth, but what about the other cases in which the words are more etymologically different; "mine" to "my", "who's" to "whose"? Exactly, they are just different words. Throughout the English language, we have many words that sound and look the same, and they might even be derivative of eachother. However, in English's current state, they are their own entity-- they are their own word, a different word. If you take a step back and think about things loosely, you will see that the same applies to "its". While it does seem weird when you try to think of it as you do, "its" really is just its own word.

That's my take. Take it or leave it.

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