The most common problem I’ve seen in my years of grading papers has to be the misuse of the apostrophe, and specifically, the mix-up between the words “its” and “it’s.”
In early WriteShop I lessons, as students describe objects, pets, and foods, their papers are often riddled with sentences that misuse “it’s”:
- It’s surface feels rough; or
- It’s long, shaggy fur hangs in it’s eyes; or
- When I take a bite, it’s creamy filling melts in my mouth.
Why Does It Even Matter?
While the difference between “its” and “it’s” may not seem like a big deal to some, using these two little words incorrectly can make you seem ignorant and uneducated.
You see, whether or not they mean to, people often form first impressions simply by reading our writing. Isn’t this why our shelves brim with English references, grammar programs, and spelling books? It IS important to us that our children write as accurately as possible.
It’s never too late to teach the rules to your kids. And if you didn’t quite grasp these concepts during your own school days, it’s never too late to learn or re-learn the rules yourself.
It’s is a contraction, short for it is (or sometimes for it has). An apostrophe takes the place of the missing letter or letters.
Example: It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring.
Example: Well, it’s about time!
Misuse comes from trying to make the word “it” possessive by adding “apostrophe s” as we do with other words, such as fool’s gold, farmer’s field, hornet’s nest. But we DO NOT do this with “it.”
Its is a possessive pronoun, showing ownership, belonging to “it.”
Example: Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow.
Example: A place for everything and everything in its place.
Here are some other common possessive pronouns:
Notice that none of these possessive pronouns has an apostrophe. We don’t write her’s, his’s, or their’s.
Using Them Correctly
With practice, you’ll soon be able to tell these two words apart. Some helpful hints:
Try replacing it’s with it is in the sentence. If it doesn’t make sense, you probably meant to use “its.” If it sounds okay, “it’s” can stay.
Example: “Every dog has it’s day” can’t be right, because “Every dog has it is day” makes no sense at all. Clearly, you want to write: “Every dog has its day.”
Example: “It’s only five o’clock.” In this case, “It is only five o’clock” makes perfect sense, so the original sentence is correct.
Try replacing its with his in the sentence. If it sounds right, “its” can stay.
Example: “The puppy loves its new chew toy” works because “The puppy loves his new chew toy” makes perfect sense.
Example: “Right now, it’s raining buckets.” If you replace “it’s” with “his,” what happens? You end up with “Right now, his raining buckets.” Well, that makes no sense, so the apostrophe stays.
Look at the word that follows its or it’s. If a noun follows, you’ll probably want to use “its” (no apostrophe). But if an adjective follows, you’ll most likely want to use “it’s.” This isn’t always true, but it does work most of the time.
Example: “The sleepy lamb closed its eyes.” Eyes is a noun. Since we don’t want to say “it is eyes,” we’d better use “its.”
Now you can see that it’s pretty easy to master these skills. And with practice, both you and your kids will become pros!