English contains so many confusing words and punctuation marks you’d be forgiven for imagining some diabolical grammarian put them there to torture us. You’d be wrong, but it’s a reasonable assumption. One confusing pair that unites tricky words with slippery punctuation is its and it’s. This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that its is one of the top 100 most frequently used words in English. It appears all the time—giving us oodles of opportunities for error.
Its is the possessive form of it. This is particularly confusing because many possessive forms have an apostrophe, like Mary’s cat, but the possessive its is a pronoun, and, like other possessive pronouns (his, hers, yours, and theirs), is written without that particular bit of punctuation: “I have to fix my bike. Its front wheel came off.”
It’s is a contraction of the words it and is, just as what’s, how’s, and she’s are contractions of what is, how is, and she is. It’s is used correctly in the sentence: “It’s starting to rain.”
To help figure out which form you should use, try this trick: switch out the word in your sentence for it is. If the sentence grammatically works with it is, use it’s. If the resulting sentence doesn’t make sense, go for its. In the sentence “It’s unclear what he meant,” it’s can be swapped with it is and it will read: “It is unclear what he meant.” Now that’s a full and proper sentence. In the sentence, “The book has lost its jacket,” “If you replace its with it is, it will read: “The book has lost it is jacket.” That sounds funny.
Another rule to keep in mind: the word its’ is always wrong. The apostrophe never follows the s. It’s nice to be able to say never in a rule concerning English grammar; it doesn’t happen very often.
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