It’s its, isn’t it?

Ok, let’s get this right straight away.

it’s = it is

its = of it

Simple, isn’t it? Yes. Well… actually not. Otherwise, why would so many people (including native speakers!) get it wrong so often by writing its when they mean it’s and it’s when they mean its? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen this mistake in emails, blogs, scripts, reports, theses, public articles, official documents, advertising material, magazines, newspapers, websites, you name it. Sadly, it is not (it’s not) uncommon in academia either.

Whenever I discuss the issue with a native speaker, the answer is always the same: we don’t get taught English grammar in this country. Fair enough! (sad, actually). But then, as an academic, I think it is important to write well, ideally without grammar mistakes, and this is not a difficult one to get right. So, I started wondering what causes the confusion and how to avoid it. And here is my answer.

Saxon genitive.

A quick look on Wikipedia will reveal that In English language teaching, the term “Saxon genitive” is used to associate the possessive use of the apostrophe (the commonly-termed “apostrophe s”) with the historical origin in Old English (in older scholarship known as Anglo-Saxon) of the morpheme that it represents. The Saxon genitive is one of the ways in modern English of forming a genitive construction, along with the preposition “of”.

Ok, this may sound arabic to some, so let me give you an example.

“This is the car of Mary” becomes, using the Saxon genitive, “this is Mary’s car”. Likewise, “the sister of Paul” becomes “Paul’s sister”. So far so good. I bet nobody gets this wrong.

Now consider the following: “this is the car of Mary” and change it to “this is her car”. Or, “the sister of Paul” and change it to “his sister”. Would you ever dream of writing: “this is her’s car” or “his’s sister”? I hope your answer will be a loud, convinced, resounding NO.


When we write “his” what we mean is “of + male name” and when we write “her” we mean “of + female name”. Now, the same holds true for its, except it refers to a neutral object or animal, and so it means “of it”. Consider the following: “the title of this post” would become “this post’s title” or – you will have guessed! – “its title”. Well done!

On the other hand, if I say “the title of this post is” … gosh, I wish I had chosen a different title now! Ok, let me give you a different example. If I say “the book is on the table” and I want to use a pronoun for “the book”, then I’ll write “it (the book) is on the table” or “it’s on the table”. Can you see the difference with the previous example? In this case, the “apostrophe s” in “it’s” has nothing to do with the Saxon genitive, but it simply is a contracted form of “it is“, much the same as when you write “I’m” when you mean “I am” or “you’re” when you mean “you are” (though you bet I have also seen “your” in this case too! deep horror).

Clear? I hope so.

Now, every time you are in doubt whether you should write it’s or its, pause for a moment and ask yourself: do I mean “of it” or do I mean “it is“? And remember:

it’s = it is 

its = of it

I am sure you’ll never get it wrong again.

PS And if you always got it right in the first place, just spread the word. Share this post, like it, tweet it or re-tweet it, send it to your Facebook friends, or post it on Linked-in. Even if it makes the difference for just one person, the time to write it will have been well spent.

PPS Oh, and by the way, as we are talking about writing, I’ll be offering a “Hands on Writing” Workshop (not just grammar, though, don’t worry!) next week for PhD students in Physics at the University of Edinburgh. Check out its (!) content on the WORKSHOPS page in this blog and let me know if you might be interested in a virtual workshop on Scientific Writing. Just send me an email at: marialuisa.aliotta at

PPPS Ok, this is the last one, I promise. Would you imagine a whole blog being devoted to Apostrophe Abuse? No way!? Then take a look here. The fun is guaranteed! :)

Career paths and inspirational people

Credits: Peter Tuffy

Yesterday I attended the Women in Science and Engineering networking event held at the School of Chemistry, here at the University of Edinburgh. The day was open to men and women working in academia and provided an opportunity to discuss various aspects relating to careers in Science and Engineering. The format included presentations from distinguished scientists, and was complemented by an excellent break-out session on key issues of academic careers, such as work-life balance, funding climate in the UK, barriers to career progression, academia vs industry, and maternity/paternity leave. I really enjoyed the event! The presentations were brilliant and inspirational, and the discussions at the break-out session were insightful and stimulating.

However, what I found most fascinating was to see the way in which people’s careers unfold. In fact, towards the end of the day, someone asked a very interesting question to all speakers: Looking back at the beginning of their careers and at their own aspirations then, do they think now that they have progressed through a planned path and that they have achieved what they had originally hoped for? And, if so, do they now feel happy because of this?

The speakers’ answers were revealing: mostly, they had not planned the turns and steps they took along the path; mostly, they did not even end up doing what they had originally set out for; and mostly, they had seen their aspirations and dreams change along the way. And yet, ultimately, they were all happy about the way things had turned out in their lives in the end.

This reminded me of a truly inspirational speech about “joining the dots”. It was the address given by Steve Jobs to the graduates of Stanford University in 2005. (If you have never seen it or heard it before, please take a look now by clicking here).

And so, at the end of the event, I found myself giving this piece of advice to an Italian girl approaching the end of her post-doctoral experience in Edinburgh and wondering about what to do next:

Be flexible.

Stay open-minded.

Remember that nothing is forever (good or bad).

Be patient: life is long.

I trust that in twenty or thirty-years’ time she too will look back at her own path and realise that each step along the way took her closer to where she wanted and needed to be.

My three little secrets

It’s been a while since I last published a post on this blog. So, I guess it is appropriate to give you all a very warm “welcome back”.

It has been a very busy few months since the beginning of the year. I have given my undergraduate lecture course, run tutorials, demonstrated in a first-year lab, and refereed a major grant application. I have also written three papers, a feature article for a nuclear physics magazine, and a conference proceedings. All of this while also looking after my child, now almost 18 months old. And you know what? It feels so good! :) So, I thought I could share with you three little secrets that have helped me accomplish all of this.

Interestingly, it has been precisely the arrival of my son that has prompted me to look at my various commitments and to realise that I needed to prioritise. However, you do not need to have a child before becoming more productive! So, here is what you can do to improve your output while also striking a good work-life balance.

First, and perhaps most importantly, you have to get clear about your own priorities. This is something I have learnt from the coaching work of Olga Degtyareva and Christine Kane. It seems an obvious thing, but we rarely take time to identify what is truly important to us. So, we develop a tendency to live re-actively, rather than act on the basis of precise choices and intentions. Getting clear about our intentions and what we want to achieve helps us taking the immediate next steps in the right directions.

Second, you may need to learn to say NO. I must confess that I have often struggled with this. In part it is because I like to help others whenever I can. But at times, we find it difficult to say no because we do not want to disappoint people or because we seek their approval or simply because we don’t want to be impolite. So, we end up spending time and effort on activities that are not in alignment with what we truly want to achieve. Saying NO to things we are ultimately not interested in frees up precious time for what really matters to us (and yes, this may even be spending more time with family or friends).

Finally, you may want to get support. This can mean finding a mentor, a coach or simply an accountability partner. In fact, the very act of telling someone else what you want to achieve, how you plan to get there and which steps you intend to take can be enough to keep you on track. It also serves to encourage us when we loose motivation or when we feel overwhelmed.

Now, next time you feel stuck or struggle to achieve more of what you want, why don’t you try to follow any one of these little tips and see if your days take up a different shape. I bet they will.