Are you confused about using it’s vs. its? you’re not alone! This simple grammar mistake is surprisingly frequent even among educated native speakers of English, and is probably one of the most notorious grammatical pet peeves in written English. It’s an easy mistake to make because it’s and its sound the same. But they mean totally different things. Unfortunately, if you make this kind of mistake you run the risk of making a bad impression with your writing. But luckily, in the case of it’s or its, the rules are simple and clear cut.
Test your knowledge of it’s vs its first by taking the quiz here.
It’s vs. its general rules
- If you mean it is or it has*, then use it’s.
- If you mean anything else, use its.
- It is never, ever correct to write its’.
- You can’t write it’s for it was.
* Note that you can only use it’s for it has when has is an auxiliary verb. If has is a main verb, you can’t use it’s.
Those are the rules in a nutshell; for more details about using it’s and its correctly, plus several examples, read on!
It’s vs. its rules and examples
Its/it’s has two forms. One form has an apostrophe, spelled I-T-apostrophe-S, and is a contraction of it is or it has.
Here’s an example where it’s means it is: “Hooray! It’s time for grammar!”
This means “Hooray, it is time for grammar.”
Here’s an example where it’s means it has: “Wow! It’s been a long time.”
This means, “Wow! It has been a long time.”
We can combine these two examples like this:
“Wow, it’s been a long time since I heard a student say, ‘Hooray, it’s time for grammar!’ ”
That means, “Wow, it has been a long time since I heard a student say, ‘Hooray! It is time for grammar!’ ”
The other form of its has no apostrophe. It is a possessive determiner used to designate animals and inanimate objects.
1) The Netherlands is famous for its tulips and windmills.
2) Volvo is known for its boxy-but-safe car design.
Neither of those sentences would make sense if you replaced its with it is or it has.
Luckily, when you are speaking nobody can hear whether or not your brain is mixing up its and it’s. Writing is where you will get in trouble.
Here is how you can avoid writing the wrong form of its or it’s when you have an important piece of writing where you cannot possibly afford to give a bad impression.
1) Step one: when you write, ask yourself if the it’s/its you’re about to write means it is or it has. If it does, then you can use the it’s form WITH an apostrophe. If it is or it has does not fit in your sentence, then you need the its form WITHOUT an apostrophe.
The Netherlands is famous for its tulips. Can you say, “The Netherlands is famous for it is tulips”? No. So you need the pronoun its.
Can you say “The Netherlands is famous for it has tulips”? Nope, it doesn’t work, so you know you need the pronoun its with NO apostrophe.
If you are still confused, then try recasting the sentence its/it’s with another possessive determiner, like his, her, or their. If one of those make sense grammar-wise, then you need its with NO apostrophe. Here’s an example:
Volvo is famous for its boxy-but-safe design. You can try “Volvo is famous for their boxy-but-safe design.” Yes, it makes sense! So you know that you use its with no apostrophe.
2) The second thing you should do is use the find feature of your word processing software to search for all instances of its (no apostrophe) and it’s (with apostrophe). For each instance you find, perform the it is / it has test or the his-her-their determiner test. If you take the time to do this, you will never risk turning in a piece of writing containing this dorky grammar mistake.
All clear? Great! Take the it’s or its quiz and check your understanding.