Its vs. It's: How to Choose the Right Word

The often confused words sound alike but have very different meanings

A dog sleeping on a hot porch
When it's hot, the dog sleeps in its hiding place on the old porch.

Ted Soqui/Getty Images

The words "its" and "it's" are easily confused by English-language learners and even native speakers. They are pronounced the same—and they do have a common base word—but they have different meanings and uses. Both "its" and "it's" are based on the pronoun "it," which serves as a function word or refers to a previously mentioned noun. However, "its" (without an apostrophe) is a possessive pronoun, like his or her. "It's" (with an apostrophe in front of the "s") is a contraction of "it is" or "it has." The apostrophe in "it's" is a mark of omission, not possession.

How to Use Its

Use "its" when you need a possessive pronoun, which is a pronoun that can take the place of a noun phrase to show ownership. For example, one of the most classic uses of "its" as a possessive pronoun would be the cliche:

  • "Don't judge a book by its cover."

In this case, "its" is a possessive pronoun referring to "book." You are telling the reader or listener not to judge a book by the cover belonging to it, or connected to/placed on it.

How to Use It's

"It's," by contrast, is a contraction for the words "it" and "is." The apostrophe is literally swapping out for, or being replaced by, the apostrophe, as in:

  • "It's mine; it's all mine."

You are literally saying:

  • "It is mine; it is all mine."

The reader or listener does not know what "it's" refers to, at least not from this sentence alone. The word "it" in "it is" could be referring to any inanimate object or an animal whose gender is unknown. The "it" in "it's" here could refer to a cellphone, for example in the sentence:

  • "The cellphone is mine."

The word "cellphone" (and the article "the," which precedes it) could be replaced with "it is," as in:

  • "It's mine."

You are literally saying, "It (the cellphone) is mine."

Examples

  • "Sal placed the ring back in its box and returned it to the safe." In this case, "its" is a possessive pronoun referring to, or renaming, the word "ring," which is back in "its" box (the box that belongs to the ring).
  • Mr. Rogers (aka Fred McFeely Rogers) used to say, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood." In this use, the cardigan-wearing children's television show host was actually saying, "It is a good day in the neighborhood." "It's" is a contraction for "it is" in this example.
  • "It's been a long day, Granny said, and we're all rather tired." In this example, "it's" is a contraction for "it is." Granny is saying, "It has been a long day...."
  • When the landlord asked about this month's rent check, Kim said, "It's on its way." In this case, the sentence includes both uses of "it's" and "its." In the first, "it's" is a contraction for "it is." Kim is saying that "it" (the check") "is" on its way. In the second use, the "its" is a possessive pronoun also referring to the check, which is on "its" way.

    How to Remember the Difference

    "Its" is a unique construction because this possessive word quite frequently gets mistaken for its cousin "it's." To keep the meanings straight, remember:

    • Possessive pronouns don't have apostrophes.
    • Try substituting "its" or "it's" with "it is" or "it has," and see if the sentence still makes sense. If it doesn't, omit the apostrophe. The opposite is also true: If you omit the apostrophe and the sentence doesn't make sense, you'll know you need to use that punctuation mark.

    So, if you say, "The ring is back in it's box," you're really saying, "The ring is back in it is box." That makes no sense, so you would need to omit the apostrophe, as in: "The ring is back in its box." You're saying the ring is back in the box belonging to it or designated for it.

    Conversely, if you say, "Its a nice day," that makes no sense. What you mean to say is, "It's a nice day," meaning, "It is a nice day." In this case, you do need the apostrophe.

    "It" as a Dummy Subject

    The word "it" can be a subject (or dummy subject) in sentences about times, dates, and the weather (such as, It's raining) and in certain idioms (It's OK). A dummy subject is also known as the ambient "it" or empty "it."

    Unlike the ordinary pronoun "it," the dummy "it" refers to nothing at all; it simply serves a grammatical function. In other words, the dummy "it" has a grammatical meaning but no lexical meaning. Some examples, where you can use either "it" as a dummy subject, or "it is" as a dummy subject and verb, include:

    • It is hot, it is late, and it is time to go, or it's hot, it's late, and it's time to go.
    • It will be morning soon.

    In these sentences, the "it" has no lexical meaning, in that it does not refer to anything specific, but it does have a grammatical meaning, in that it functions as the subject of the sentence.

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