Confession: It took me until about five years ago to get “it’s” and “its” correct on a consistent basis. It was one of those things that, as I was never really sure, I always found a way to reword my sentences to avoid. (I know you have that word. We all do. You can’t figure it out, so you would rather write 45 other words just to skate around it.) Now that I am fully confident in my understanding of the difference between these two, oh-so-similar troublemakers of the English language, I can make a valiant attempt to explain it to you fine folks. Especially my darling friend Katie, at whose request I’m writing today. Miss you!
I’m at that age where I have a bunch of friends who are pregnant or who have just recently had babies. When they’re expecting, some of them want to retain the gender mystique and choose not to know whether they’re having a boy or a girl. Or said in-utero dweller refuses to cooperate and let his or her parents know what s/he is. In the absence of a definitive gender determination, these developing humans are commonly referred to as “it.” Not like Cousin Itt, because that’s a proper name and has two t’s. Just “it.”
Your friends show you their sonogram pictures, and you say polite things like, “Wow, it’s got a big…uh…head,” and “Oooh, look at its cute little…um…arms?” In both of these sentences we’re using “it” as a gender-neutral pronoun to identify the baby. Yet in one use we’ve got an apostrophe and in the other, not so much. Similar to the post a few weeks ago regarding “you’re,” when using “it’s,” that apostrophe is standing for the letter(s) you removed to make the contraction which signifies “it is” or “it has.” And a contraction, in this use, not in the “Holy hell, get this thing out of my body” way, is the combination of a noun and a verb, or in the case of “it’s,” a pronoun and a verb.
It occurs to me that, while I try to avoid “grammar-y” words, there’s no way to get around “pronoun” in this post. The quick and dirty (conveniently, some of my favorite ways to do things) definition of pronoun is: a word that is used in place of a noun or noun phrase. My mom (Hi, Mom!) loves pronouns. But she manages to have perfected the ability to use them in the most confusing ways for me.
As in, “Did that come free when you bought it?”
And I’m all, “Uh, what do you mean by ‘that’ and when I bought what?”
And she says, “You know, did you get a free bookmark when you bought the Milk Bar cookbook…two years ago?”
To which I say, “You do recognize we were just discussing what movies you should see, right? Nothing to do with cookies at all.” Her defense is always a long-winded story (that’s totally where I get it) about how this movie reminded her about bakeries and she lost her bookmark on her last airplane trip and whatever. So let this be a lesson to you, not only about “its” and “it’s” but also about when maybe you wanna use a noun instead of a pronoun to avoid confusing your kids. Especially when they’ve already started their daily wine intake.
The reason the apostrophe-less “its” is a conundrum to most of us is that it is possessive. “Its” means something belongs to “it,” and with so many other words, when we want to indicate possession, we add an apostrophe and then an “s.” Like “This is Mully’s toy,” or “I sure hope Eva’s check doesn’t bounce.” The construction of “its” seems to go against what we’ve always been taught to be true, so our brain refuses to accept it. Problem is, our brain doesn’t get to make the choice here.
Possessive pronouns never get an apostrophe and an “s.” Think of the options: your, our, my…not a one of those gets the typical possession treatment. The apostrophe and “s” combo is reserved for nouns and isn’t used with pronouns. “That is your book sitting on the table in our house next to my wineglass.” Nary an apostrophe + “s” among them, yet the book belongs to you, the house belongs to us, and the wineglass most assuredly belongs to me. Mine is empty right now. It’s a tragedy.
Also, when typing on your phone, don’t let autocorrect make your it’s/its decisions for you. It doesn’t know. And it doesn’t care if you look like a dumbass. So don’t put the power in its “brain.” Use yours.
And a final word about its’. No. It’s wrong. It’s not a word. It’s meaningless. Don’t use it.
Well, Katie, and all y’all reading, how’d this work out for you? What’s next on your topic list? Don’t forget to leave a comment to let me know you’re here or if I confused you like my adorable mom confuses me.
Originally published February 24, 2014