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[ FYI #1 ]

I M P R O V I N G   P R A C T I C E

it’s? or its?

I have a mousepad on which is printed:

[Company name] Is Celebrating It’s 10th Anniversary!

This is a common error which I see all too often in professionally-printed marketing materials. It’s the sort of error that people easily miss because the standard spelling checker won’t flag it, and most of us don’t use style checkers, which are more sensitive to usage problems.

The error occurs so often because it’s breaks the general rule governing possessives. Usually, when we want to indicate that something belongs to (or is of) something or someone else, we add an apostrophe+s:

the woman’s dog
the Smith family’s dog

And for nominals ending in s, we add just the apostrophe:

the Smiths’ dog
keeping up with the Joneses’ dog
Thomas Hobbes’ book, Leviathan

or, depending on editorial preference, an apostrophe+s:

Thomas Hobbes’s book, Leviathan

But it’s doesn’t signify the possessive. Its (no apostrophe) does.

It’s signifies a contraction, in which the apostrophe substitutes for one or more missing letters. Hence, it’s is the contraction for both

it is


it has.

I include below two examples which play off the it’s/its confusion to serve up radically different meanings for the exact same sentence. Indeed, the double meaning we get from juxtaposing the two like this nicely captures the shifting hierarchies in many human-canine relationships.


A clever dog knows its master.

at RIGHT >
Fane, the author’s 13-year-old smooth-coated collie, with whom she lived commensally until April 2008, when Fane succumbed to cancer at age 14. Like his humans, Fane fully experienced this sentence in both its senses.

A clever dog knows it’s master.


Both sentences are, of course, grammatically correct. The difference between them — and it’s quite subtle — is semantic and beyond the afore-mentioned sensitivities of mechanical style checkers, which do not share humans’ appreciation for nuanced ambiguity and word play.

One final usage note on it’s: contractions are widely considered to be markers of informal (or colloquial) speech, as in

it’s me who decides

versus the more formal construction

it is I who decides.

Again, both are technically correct, and use of one rather than the other is really an expression of personal style within a given rhetorical situation.

Whether you choose to use it is or it’s in a particular discourse is not a matter of grammar, but of diction — the sort of word choice we make, consciously or unconsciously, to achieve a desired tone and effect.

to FYI #2 ...

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