The Tangled History of ‘It’s’ and ‘Its’

Its And its. They are common and often confused.

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They are also difficult to illustrate through stock photos.

In theory, the rule that distinguishes the two is simple: its mean that is or it has. The apostrophe signals that something has been deleted:

It’s raining. [=It is raining.]

It has been raining since last night. [=It has been raining since last night.]

Meanwhile, its means “of or relating to it or itself”:

Let the medicine do its job.

The door closes by itself.

But this rule wouldn’t have worked a few centuries ago.

A long time ago, English, like its original Germanic language, had a gender for every noun—masculine, feminine, or neuter. The gender of a pronoun is determined by the gender of the noun it refers to. Although English has neuter pronouns ItThe possessive pronoun for neuter nouns is his:

April with your sweet showers.

But when English began to associate his And she for actual men and women only, his for objects that seem increasingly wrong, and It-with no S—started to be used:

April comes with sweet showers.

Around 1600 its begin is used—and it has an apostrophe, just like a possessive noun would:

Sweet April showers.

April with sweet showers.

This apostrophe form of possessive remained extremely popular throughout the 17th century and was used by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Jane Austen. The version without the apostrophe only became popular in the 18th century—perhaps because its be taken on a new role, replacing shrinkage that is.

Of course we still see ownership its: it’s in brief tweets and in flyers from local mattress stores — but sometimes also in serious publications. And the fact is, for nouns, ‘S serves both purposes well. IN cat’s bowl it signals possession, and in sleeping cat it represents the shortened verb To be.

Who knows if the current state of affairs will be the final story. But now we recommend using its only if you mean that is or it hasand drop that apostrophe everywhere else.

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In a nutshell: Conventions about its And its has changed a number of times over the last few hundred years, but we now have widely accepted forms: possession its do not use single quotes (‘river overflows’) and itscontraction of “it is,” uses a (‘shame on the mayor’).

Categories: Usage Notes

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