Thursday, 11 August 2011

It’s or its?

Many people confess to getting confused about the spelling of these two identically pronounced little words, the main question obviously being when the apostrophe is correct and when not. If you’re one of those who struggle with the difference between it’s and its, I hope this article will help clarify matters for you.

Remember this to start with: one of the chief functions of the apostrophe is to indicate the omission of one or more letters or sounds, as can be seen, for example, in I’m, where the a has been omitted from I am, and there’s, where the i has been omitted from there is.
This is exactly the case with it’s, which comes from it is, so simply try and remember that it’s works just like I’m and there’s in this respect.

Most people’s confusion does not, however, relate to the above type of example; misspelling tends to come in mostly when they are dealing with it in the context of possession. For example, should it be "South Africa will field its best team" or "South Africa will field it’s best team"; "The cat ate its food" or "The cat ate it’s food"?

The answer is: the first one in each case, where its has no apostrophe.

And this is probably precisely why some people get confused, because we usually do use an apostrophe to indicate possession, as in "the cat’s food" and "South Africa’s best team".

So why are "it’s food" and "it’s best team" incorrect?

As far as I can tell, the reason is this: the apostrophe is used in the context of possession  in the case of nouns and names only, and never to indicate possession where pronouns are involved. Notice the absence of apostrophes in this set of pronouns:

(1) The book is mine/yours/his/hers/theirs/ours.

I’ve deliberately included the word mine here, even though it has no s that one could add an apostrophe to, precisely so that it can act as the strongest possible reminder that the possessive forms of pronouns do not have apostrophes.

The sentences below also show how consistent a rule it is that its as a possessive form has no apostrophe:

(2) The boy has eaten his food. (No apostrophe.)
(3) The dog has eaten its food. (Similarly: no apostrophe.)

Similarly, therefore:

(4) The shop had its annual sale.
(5) The school will welcome its new maths teacher.
(6) The book has lost its cover.
– ws –

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