Frequently Asked Question: “Its” vs. “It’s”

Itsy bitsy, or it’sy bit’sy? Or eensy weensy? (Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Why do so many people confuse “its” and “it’s”?

Apparently this mix-up happens a lot on Twitter, and even big news agencies and nationwide brands sometimes get it wrong.

Perhaps technology is to blame. Unless you have a full keyboard on your cellphone (or a smartphone), it’s faster to type “its.” I think that especially when someone isn’t sure whether an apostrophe is called for, they’ll go with what’s easiest (“its”).

Even I’m guilty of leaving out apostrophes when texting, because on my cellphone I have to press “1” nine times in order to insert an apostrophe. And when I’m also trying to eat a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder and accelerate and merge onto the freeway in my stick shift, I might just sacrifice those three seconds in the name of safety. (I’m kidding, of course! I couldn’t eat half-pound burgers and maintain this chiseled body!)

Further, I’ll bet that even if you have a full keyboard on your cellphone now, you didn’t have one “growing up,” so you got used to omitting the apostrophe.

It may also be that when your message is very short, like a text message, a Twitter update, or a story summary for a news crawl, your meaning is likely to be clear whether you spell everything correctly or not. Example: everyone knows what Libyan dictator you’re talking about whether you write “Qaddafi,” “Gadhafi,” or “Khadafi.” Therefore folks don’t make as big a deal about variations in spelling as maybe they once did.

When looking at the opposite case—overuse of “it’s”—it’s easy to see why many people make this mistake. They’re simply following the rule for forming a possessive by adding apostrophe s. The food belonging to the dog is “the dog’s”; the food belonging to it is “it’s.” Why does “its” not follow the rule? I don’t know, but probably because the contraction “it’s” for “it is” is so common. Can you imagine if “it’s” was used for both cases? You’d have sentences like the following:

  • It’s time to give the dog it’s food; it’s not going to feed itself (it’s self?).
  • If it looks as if it’s going to rain, it’s prudent to put your gnat back in it’s habitat.
  • It puts the lotion on it’s skin, or else it gets the hose again.

Yikes! In any case, there’s a simple way to know when to write “it’s” and when to write “its.” Just remember that an apostrophe is always used for contractions to represent the missing letter(s). So if you mean to write “it is,” write “it’s.” Otherwise write “its.”

Ugh, that’s not very catchy or particularly useful, is it? Very well—I’ll call on my skill with rhyme and meter to craft you a mnemonic.

Sing it to the tune of “The Isty Bitsy Spider.”

The it’s or its conundrum is what this rhyme’s about.
Do you use a ‘postrophe, or do you leave it out?
When writing the possessive, it’s just I-T-S.
But when forming a contraction, a ‘postrophe is best.

Is that horrid or helpful? Can you do one better? Let me know.

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2 Comments on “Frequently Asked Question: “Its” vs. “It’s””

  1. Baeley DeRooy says:

    Very clever rhyme!! You write so well and make grammar and spelling rules so easy to understand!

    • Joe says:

      Here’s the one my wife did for her sixth graders
      (to the tune of “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat”):

      I-T-apostrophe-S
      always means “it is.”
      I-T-S shows ownership
      Like “yours” and “hers” and “his.”


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