Its or It’s?

Its or It’s – which one to use? Or is there a weird rule to learn here?

Most people just don’t care whether or not they put an apostrophe — it’s possible these folks don’t mind either way.ย  That’s OK — everyone is entitled to their opinion ๐Ÿ™‚

For those who do want to know which one to use, there are two ways to use “its” PLUS a rule, which some think of as an “exception to the rule” — and yes, there are always exceptions to the rules, just to make it interesting for us.

Before I go any further …

Please note that I am an Australian, currently living in Australia, who was taught English in an Australian school. Please don’t criticize me if you’re from a different country and learned a different way than mine — each teacher around the world teaches different techniques, which are not necessarily the same worldwide.

When should you use an apostrophe?

SOMETIMES you need to use an apostrophe if you are OMITTING a letter (but NOT ALWAYS). For example, “It is …” is shortened to: “It’s” – you leave out [omit] the second “i”, and it is replaced with an apostrophe in some specific cases:

Meaning # 1:ย  It’s = It is = It has

  • It’s [it is] raining men!
  • It’s [it is] a long way to Tipperary!
  • It’s [it is] just not fair – I should have won first prize.
  • I liked that movie – with allย its adventure, I think it’s [it is] going to be a smash hit!
  • Isn’t it a shame? Yes it’s [it is] a shame we missed the train.
  • It’s [it has] been such a great week.

Meaning # 2 : Its = when meaning “Its own …” does NOT need an apostrophe.

So, when do you use “Its” without an apostrophe?

You don’t need an apostrophe if you want to say:

(a) “The cat lickedย its fur. ” This shows ownership of the fur, but does not need an apostrophe (and yes, I know that sounds WRONG compared to what I said earlier :-)) — but keep reading, OK?


If you did add an apostrophe in this phrase [“The cat licked it’s fur.”], you’d actually be saying:

“The cat lickedย it is fur.”

This changes the sense of the original sentence.

Here’s another example

(b) “The briefcase andย its contents were stolen.” This is the correct use of “its”.

However, if you put an apostrophe in this sentence, it would mean you meant to say:

“The briefcase andย it is contents were stolen.”

This changes the sense of the sentence.

Remember there are rules for apostrophes

  1. the first is to show possession or ownership, as in:
    1. James’ shoes were muddy (read more on Apostrophes with Proper Nouns and Apostrophes with a person’s name)ย – this could also be written as, “James’s shoes were muddy.” if you prefer to put an “s” after the apostrophe – both are correct.
    2. James ends with an ‘s’ which might confuse folks, so let’s use a different person’s name:ย  “Jenny’s shoes were muddy after the sudden downpour of rain.”ย  Jenny + ‘s shows ownership of the shoes.
  2. the second is to show the removal or omission of a letter, as in: It’s [it is] raining cats and dogs — UNLESS the word is “ITS” … which is a bit tricky
  3. the third Rule is that “its” belongs to a group of pronouns which are already possessive and don’t need an apostrophe, for example: yours, hers, his, its, theirs, ours
  4. and don’t forget there are rules along the way which may not seem to make sense to you — but which we need to learn.ย  One of those is, “The cat licked its fur.” is correct — and “its” does not need an apostrophe.

It might feel wrong, or sound crazy, but it is one of the oddities in the English language — and it may be handled differently in different countries too — you may have been taught something different than I was taught in using British English in Australia.

I hope this helps but do please ask me a question if you still find this confusing — I’m happy to help wherever I can (do please post a Comment below or send me an email).

And remember — if in doubt,ย don’t use an apostrophe.

If you’re not sure, it might be best not to use an apostrophe at all (rather than using it incorrectly) and hope for the best (until you can do some quick research).

DEALING WITH “ITS”

  • You need an apostrophe if you REMOVE or OMIT a letter in “it is”ย  … UNLESS “its” is showing ownership or possession in which case you do not need an apostrophe — OK?

30 Responses to Its or It’s?

  1. David says:

    I’m sure you’re right, but the frustrating confusion is that the apostrophe is used to indicate possession, and ‘its fur’ is indicating possession.
    So the apostrophe indicates possession, except when it doesn’t. Madness

    Incidentally your link to possession doesn’t work
    http://humbleapostrophe.com/1/possessive.html

    And I’m not sure about it’s = it was. Do you have an example?

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hi there David,

      You’re right — it IS madness ๐Ÿ™‚

      The English language has some really weird and quirky “rules”, and “its” fits into there nicely.

      I agree it sounds crazy that “its fur” LOOKS and SOUNDS like it should have an apostrophe, but it is a deviation from and an exception to the rules.

      In fact I have updated the page to add a lot more info which I hope helps clarify the confustion:
      http://humbleapostrophe.com/apostrophes/its/

      In regard to “it was” — this is something which is a bit controversial — I wouldn’t use it, but others do, so I thought I should include it.

      Thanks again for dropping by David,
      cheers
      Teena!

      • S says:

        Great page! Gets a little unnecessarily confusing towards the end. Simplicity, oh, simplicity!
        With regards to the contraction of (it was), I disagree with the possibility of using (it’s) and propose instead the somewhat archaic (’twas). I know is seems a bit outdated, but I for one would love to see a bit of revival of the whimsy and poetical nature in this great language we speak, since things seem to be headed towards the strict business usage for many speakers. ‘Twas once spoken thusly, and ’tis certainly possible henceforth should one desire to do so.

        • ApostropheQueen says:

          I too would be happy to use ’twas – archaic or not ๐Ÿ™‚

          Anyone who uses henceforth, whimsy and poetical in the same comment is a joy to read!

    • Joseph Ballard says:

      It is confusing David, but I found it helpful to look at the word “its” like the words “hers, his, ours, theirs, and yours”. They also indicate possession and don’t require an apostrophe. The only reason it’s confusing in this case, is because one can shorten “it is” to “it’s” (as I did at the start of this sentence). I don’t think anyone would have a problem if it wasn’t possible to do this.

  2. Alain says:

    Your last statement seems to contradict the whole of what you’ve said earlier.
    All of the examples you give – such as putting “the cat licked its fur” instead of “the cat licked it’s fur” because the apostrophe doesn’t indicate the omission of a letter (i.e. not “the cat it is fur”) – are contradicted when you then say that an apostrophe is only needed if you remove or omit a letter OR TO SHOW POSSESSION OR OWNERSHIP. Who else does the cat’s fur belong to if not itself?

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hey there Alain,

      Many thanks for dropping by and commenting on this post — you’re right, it does sound weird and contradictory!

      Thanks to you (and a couple of other commenters) I have decided to rewrite the page to explain that there is an “exception to the rule” when it comes to “its” — it is one of those things we need to learn which might not make sense — it just is ๐Ÿ™‚

      I appreciate your comments, you helped me to hopefully make the page make more sense.
      Have a gorgeous day!
      cheers
      Teena

  3. Jenn says:

    Where I get a bit confused is, and forgive me it’s been a long time since I was taught this, when you are referring to a subject wouldn’t ‘it’ then become the subject? I know it’s wrong but I still can’t get past it. Haha

    The cat licked its fur.

    Doesn’t the fur belong to the cat? But then now that I think about it, you do not use an apostrophe to say his, hers, ours, so there for its would be the same idea. I don’t know why this is confusing me so much.

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Jen,

      You hit the nail on the head!

      You are correct — and I know it seems weird, but “its” is an exception to the rule, one of those crazy things we have to learn about the English language.

      Since you wrote your comment, I have updated the page to hopefully make it more sense — please give it a read and let me know ๐Ÿ™‚

      cheerio for now
      Teena!

  4. Kitty Lewis says:

    Thanks for clearing this one up! I looked this up after a small disagreement with an American editor. I was taught that the possessive its should have an apostrophe after the s, as in “James’ phone was broken”, or “the cat licked its’ fur”. Maybe a difference between British English and Australian or American English? Or an unconventional English teacher?

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hey there Kitty!

      Thanks for dropping by — I’m not sure what to say about your American editor ๐Ÿ™‚

      For British/Australian writers the following is the case:

      1) “James’ phone was broken!” is correct, with the apostrophe AFTER the “s” to show ownership — well done on getting that one right! I know it’s tricky for many folks.

      2) “The cat licked its’ fur.” is INCORRECT — it does not need an apostrophe after “its” at all.

      It’s one of those weird “rules” I’m afraid. If you were to write instead, “The cat’s licking was slow and methodical, and its fur always looked shiny!” — you could add “apostrophe s” to the cat to show possession, but never to “its”.

      It may be there are different rules in the USA, as well as possible different ‘interpretations’ of the rules (which is more often the case).

      I hope this has helped in some small way.
      Cheers
      Teena

  5. B says:

    Thank you.

  6. Richard Storey says:

    OK. I am totally in agreement with the it’s or its debate, but in your example I have a problem with James’ phone. If you had chosen, say, Tony, it would have been Tony’s phone. Just because James happens to end in s, surely doesn’t deprive him of the right to ‘s, thus producing James’s phone. When I was at school (admittedly some time ago) s’ was specifically for the plural form, with all singular possessives getting ‘s whether or not their final letter in single form was also an s.

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hi there Richard, thanks so much for sharing what you learned at school — even if it was some time ago ๐Ÿ™‚

      I live in Australia and it’s acceptable for both James’ and James’s to be used in this instance – it’s up to the writer to decide which they prefer.

      Of course all of this depends on where one was schooled, and it’s possible different schools in the same country may have been taught differently depending on the teacher.

      Language is rich and vibrant, and as long as people correctly remember what they learned, it warms the cockles of my heart.

      Have a gorgeous weekend!
      Cheers
      Teena

  7. Paul James says:

    Shouldn’t ” James’ ” be ” James’s ” as that’s how you say it?

    This was Paul James’s post…

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hi there Paul, thanks for dropping by my site!

      Yes this can be written either way — with an extra s or without, as long as the apostrophe remains.

      It’s entirely up to whatever feels best for the writer (you) ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Thank you, this was really helpful! ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Dave Poulson says:

    Thank you for this wonderful site. In my writing, I’ve enjoyed hours of fun with apostrophes, and have invented a whole genre. In my work, The Headmaster doesn’t use them, and goes of his way to avoid them at all times, thus leading to a delightfully stilted style of speech. It transpires he’s a patron of PEDANT (the Perfect English Development Association National Trust) along with most of his peers.
    Best wishes, Dave

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hey there Dave,

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving such a lovely message!

      I love the apostrophe and am quite horrified that so many people don’t know how to use it ๐Ÿ™‚

      Sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you with colleagues NOT using apostrophes! Unbelievable!

      Is this what’s known as the dumbing down of a society? If folks can’t learn how to use it, it gets deleted?

      Yikes!

      I’m also shocked to hear that some of their ‘accent’ and ‘grave’ might be left by the wayside, and I’m finding that very hard to swallow (I love French!). Times change, language changes, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be sad at the loss.
      cheers
      Teena!

  10. Michelle says:

    Excellent explanation! I was explaining these rules to my six year old daughter (it’s never too early :)), and just wanted to be extra certain that I was teaching her correctly. Thank you!

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hello there Michelle, how wonderful that your daughter is learning from her Mum/Mom — keep up the great work ๐Ÿ™‚
      cheers
      Teena

  11. Lottie says:

    In some cases does its with an apostrophe need to be there even if the sentence doesn’t make sense.

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hey there Lottie, thanks for popping by my site. Would you be able to give me an example of what you mean? That would help me tremendously.
      Have a fabulous day,
      cheers
      Teena

  12. Robert Taylor says:

    Line 10: “different to” – different from !

    3rd reason for using an apostrophe: “once of those is” ?

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hi there Robert! Many thanks for catching that typo – it’s much appreciated.
      Cheers
      Teena!

  13. Alex says:

    I think the James’ example is a deliberate pun by whoever made the rules on this!

    They obviously decided
    (a) an apostrophe was needed to indicate possession
    AND
    (b) they could also double it up as an omission (of the second ‘s’).

    May be they should have made it James” !
    ๐Ÿ™‚

    • ApostropheQueen says:

      Hey Alex, thanks for the laugh, I really needed that today, ha ha ha!

      Adding TWO apostrophes is certainly an interesting idea after the name James ๐Ÿ˜€

      As for the example using the name “James”, each school in each country has teachers teaching students whatever they believe is a solution, whether it’s a rule or not. This means many folks have varied ways of solving this dilemma of a name ending in “s” — and not all of us will agree that all solutions are correct ๐Ÿ™‚

      It does make for interesting conversations though, doesn’t it?

      Have a fabulous weekend ahead,
      Happy apostrophes!
      Teena