Thursday, September 6, 2012

More Self-Editing Tips: It’s or Its?

Recently I shared some of the common mistakes I look for when wearing my editor’s hat. Here is another major tip to help you spot your own writing mistakes before someone else does.

It’s or Its? Which is correct? Of all spelling errors, the misuse of these two words is probably king. I catch even experienced writers typing “it’s” when they mean “its” and vice versa. Here’s a quick key to understanding the difference: If your underlying meaning is “it is” or “it has” then always choose “it’s” if you decide to shorten it.

            “It is hot outside today.” (correct)
            Or as a conversational contraction: “It’s hot outside today.” (Also correct)
            Or, “It’s been a long time since I experienced such heat.” (“It’s” is the contraction of “it has” in this case, and so this is also correct.)
            But never type, “Its hot outside.” (Reason: “Its” can never equal “it is.”)

So when to use “its”? To show possession of “it.”

“The coolest thing about this car is its sleek contouring.” (Notice how you cannot replace this “its” with the idea “it is” or “it has”? This word always shows possession.)

Or, “A statue used to stand in this spot. The city removed it after vandals chopped off its head.” (The head belonged to the statue. No way you could substitute “it’s” (which literally means “it is” or “it has”) in this instance.

Yes, I know this is confusing, since normally in English we add  ’s to show possession. Just memorize this as the most important exception to that rule, and you’ll be doing your writing a huge favor. After all, it’s a great relief when you can keep a contraction in its proper place.

Happy self-editing!

Rick Barry


  1. And I always thought "its" was the plural of "it." Oh well.

    The way I remember is to realize that "its" is a possessive pronoun like "his" or "her", none of which use an apostrophe as you would for the possessive form of a noun.

    Have a blessed day.


  2. This was ALWAYS difficult for my ESL students to master -- along with ones/one's, etc. . . . Our English language has SO many exceptions to ITS MANY rules. . . which change from decade to decade and century to century! :-)

  3. In high school I constantly confused these two words. Not until Mrs. Lonteen wrote "Stop this!" in bright red letters on one essay did I ask for a clear explanation of which is which. That has stuck with me all these years. My quick rule of thumb: If the underlying meaning is "it is" or "it has," use the contraction, which indicates left out letters. Anything else gets "its."