Flashcard: Its/It's Confusion — Don't Be Its Next Victim

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It's tricky knowing when to use its and when to use it's. But it's worth getting it right.

If you send out a sales letter, for instance, that says something like, "Acme's new anvil is known for IT'S coyote-flattening power," you risk losing a potential customer. This common error casts doubt on the writer and thus the product. As far as I'm concerned, if Acme can't get the its/it's thing straight, how can I trust it to make a superior anvil?

Fortunately, there is a way to make sure you do not suffer the fate of the hapless anvil salesman. First off, here's the rule (as spelled out in the "Associated Press Stylebook"):

It's is a contraction for it is or it has: It's up to you. It's been a long time. Its is the possessive form of the neuter pronoun: The company lost its assets.

This may seem simple, but the fact is, most of us associate the apostrophe with possessives more strongly than with contractions. After all, there are as many possessives as there are nouns, but there are only a relative handful of contractions: don't, let's, can't, he'd, isn't, you've, aren't, wasn't, to name a few. The tendency when we see an apostrophe is to think "possessive"; it feels natural to go from Julia's new anvil and the anvil's coyote-flattening power to the incorrect it's coyote-flattening power.

Now that you know the rule and why we tend to break it, here's a trick to help you determine whether you want its or it's: When you come across either its or it's, say the words "it is" out loud. If you say "it is" and the sentence still works, you want the contractive form, it's (with apostrophe); if you say the words "it is" and the sentence doesn't work, you want the possessive form, its (no apostrophe).

Here are some

Boiled down: If two words work — IT and IS — you need the apostrophe; if they don't, you don't need the apostrophe.

examples:

"It's time to get a new anvil." Read it out loud like this: IT IS time to get a new anvil. Yep, the two words work there, so you do, in fact, need the contractive form, it's (with apostrophe).

"The anvil broke free of its tether." Read it out loud like this: The anvil broke free of IT IS tether. Clearly, the two words do not work there, so you need the possessive form, its (no apostrophe).

"I feel its bad manners to drop an anvil on a coyote." Read it out loud like this: I believe IT IS bad manners to drop an anvil on a coyote. IT IS — two words — works there, so you need the apostrophe to form the contraction of IT and IS: "I feel IT'S bad manners to drop an anvil on a coyote."

"The anvil weighed 500 pounds. It's full weight was brought to bear upon the outsmarted coyote." Read it out loud like this: The anvil weighed 500 pounds. IT IS full weight was brought to bear upon the outsmarted coyote. Nope, that doesn't work — you don't want two words in there, just one — so you need the possessive form, its (no apostrophe): "ITS full weight was brought to bear upon the outsmarted coyote."

Boiled down: If two words work — IT and IS — you need the apostrophe; if they don't, you don't need the apostrophe. Eventually, this reading-out-loud technique will become second nature. Its and it's will settle effortlessly into their rightful places. You will emerge the triumphant roadrunner.

Tune in to the next episode of "Editorializing" for tips on how to wrangle some pesky homonyms. And if you have your own tried-and-true grammar/usage tricks, please share them with us: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .