Charlie; It’s/Its

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.)

19 thoughts on “Charlie; It’s/Its

  1. Rebecca

    I thought this post was going to be about the delicious dessert its its and I was like “oooh what does Swistle think about its its.

  2. Ernie

    This makes me grateful that I did not choose to teach English as a second language to ANYONE. Poor foreigners. Isn’t it bad enough that Trump won’t allow them in this country? Once they find their way in, they have to try to learn that. Yuck!

    Swistle, I have tried repeatedly to add the link to your blog to the column of blogs that I read on my blog, but it always appears as the link to your baby name blog. Love that blog, too, but I wanted to highlight this blog. Any suggestions? Thanks!

  3. Robin

    I’m an SAT/ACT tutor so I have to teach this all the time. I just teach kids to say “it is” when they see “it’s”. If “it is doesn’t work, you don’t need the apostrophe. I also have to teach that _its’_ is not a word (we don’t make “it” plural by adding an “s “: Something belongs to it, somethings belong to them. But the tests usually offer _its’_ as a wrong answer. It is surprisingly hard to google all this to check because of the stinkin punctuation!

    1. G

      That’s exactly what I do, mentally. “it’s” ALWAYS means “it is”, so if that doesn’t make sense in the sentence, you don’t need the apostrophe.

      1. Matti

        Me too! “It’s” is a contraction of “it is.” And if I’m expressing ownership, then that wouldn’t work. But thank you for explaining it the opposite way, Swistle. This will be useful when I have to explain it to my kids and answer BUT WHY?

    2. Anna

      This is how I do it, too- knowing that the apostrophe indicates a contraction. But the value of a good mnemonic- that’s priceless! And it’s true (see what I did there?), when you find one, it clicks right into place in your brain. So it had better be right!

  4. Becky

    THANK YOU for this! I teach third grade and every year I struggle with one certain spelling list. That particular list is all homophones – stair and stare, bear and bear, its and it’s. I use the words in sentences as I give the test and this always screws me up. I can say, “IT’S time to go home.” But I NEVER know how to use “its”. So what is a good sentence? Maybe, “The tree lost its leaves.”?

  5. Liz Miller

    Brilliant to have a second way to remember this rule.

    I made up a new mnemonic a few years ago, based on an old mnemonic that no longer worked. My Very Educated Mother Just Said Unhappily, “NOT Pluto?”

  6. Natalie

    If real heart-eyes were possible, I would have them. I was always very good at grammar/spelling but I find the prevalence of the printed word (i.e., the INTERNET), and that of people who are unrepentant terrible spellers, makes me question myself.

    Also, may I ask that you go back to tweeting about new posts? I visit Twitter daily but your blog only when I think of it.

    1. Swistle Post author

      Oh! I’m so glad you mentioned it. I hadn’t noticed that it had stopped working, but now I think I’ve got it up and running again.

  7. Alice

    Are you sure you want that mnemonic? To me, that seems more complicated than it needs to be. I was taught in middle school that you only use the apostrophe when it’s a contraction for “it is.” Otherwise, it’s “its.” Super easy.

    1. Swistle Post author

      That’s the very rule that never made sense to me, so it’s never worked for me. “It’s” looks just like, say, “Swistle’s”—and “Swistle’s” isn’t always a contraction, so it doesn’t click into place in my mind that “it’s” would be.

  8. Chrissy

    I remember it how my third grade teacher taught me: Take the phrase IT IS and crumple up the I in IS into a little apostrophe to make IT’S. I still remember that all these years later! It’s amazing!

  9. Marilyn

    Yep. One time my mom said to me when I was in high school, “Its. Like ‘his.’” and somehow it all made sense and I have never struggled with it again. Funny how your mind needs to fit things together like that to make sense of them! :)


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