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.
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 gmail.com
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!