Every so often I use my ancient bottle of Charlie perfume, which is the perfume I wore in high school, though this is a less-ancient bottle than that. I do hope I didn’t use multiple sprays of it back then, because it is Quite Strong. Well, if I DID use a lot of it, I was in good company: I am pretty sure I still have other people’s Benetton Colors and Drakkar Noir residue in my nostrils.
This morning I had an academic revelation. It reminds me of the time when, in my early 30s, I suddenly realized that the horizontal line in a fraction MEANS “divided by.” You can SAY IT that way: “1/4” is “1 divided by 4.” Anyway, this morning’s revelation concerns its/it’s and may be as obvious to some of you as the fraction line, but to me it was mind-altering. I have been successfully using its/it’s (though I found a misuse in this very post), but I could not have explained to you WHY—UNTIL NOW.
Here is where my confusion was, before this morning: we say “Swistle’s name,” so why isn’t it correct to say “it’s name”? I know it ISN’T correct, but why?? HERE IS WHY: because “it” is a pronoun, and so it follows PRONOUN rules rather than NOUN rules (“Swistle” is a noun). This is no way to construct a language, but this is what we’ve got.
Here is what we do with possessive NOUNS: we leave the noun the same and we add an apostrophe-S or an apostrophe, depending on the particular noun and its singular/plural status. Possessive nouns: Swistle’s name, the cats’ names, people’s names, the tree’s name, the estate’s name, the babies’ names, the movie’s name. Apostrophes galore!
For possessive PRONOUNS, we don’t do that; instead, we use whole new words. “He” is a pronoun, so we don’t say “he’s name” as we would if “he” were a noun; instead we say “his name.” The possessive for “he” is a whole new word: “his.” “She” is a pronoun, so we don’t say “she’s name” as we would if “she” were a noun; instead we say “her name.” The possessive for “she” is a whole new word: “her.” “They” is a pronoun, so we don’t say “they’s names” as we would if “they” were a noun; instead we say “their names.” The possessive for “they” is a whole new word: “their.” And “it” is a pronoun, so we don’t say “it’s name” as we would if “it” were a noun; instead we say “its name.” The possessive for “it” is a whole new word, “its.” Which is not enough of a whole new word, in my opinion, and is confusingly similar to what we do to make nouns possessive. No wonder people have trouble learning this. It should have been an actual whole new word such as “eir.”
But it’s too late now; we’re stuck with it. The contraction “it’s” sounds the same as the possessive pronoun “its,” and that is just how it is. The contraction “he’s” sounds different from the possessive pronoun “his,” and the contraction “she’s” sounds different from the possessive pronoun “her,” and so everyone understands the difference. We only get muddled by “it’s”/”its,” and frankly we have good reason to be confused. Oh! And we also get muddled by “they’re”/”their,” ALSO for good reason: because THEY SOUND THE SAME, and because the NON-possessive form is the one with the apostrophe! Really, we should pat ourselves on the back if we get it right 50% of the time.
Whooo, thanks for hanging in there on this boring topic. It’s just, I finally have a mnemonic for remembering the it’s/its thing: “its” goes with “his”; “it’s” goes with “he’s.” (I would prefer to remember it with “her”/”she’s,” but the matching S-endings of “its” and “his” is essential for it to click into place in my mind.)