Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

English lesson #1: it's / its

Posted on 13 August 2009 59 comments

Article illustration for English lesson #1: it's / its

Those of you who know me personally will also know that I’m something of a pedant when it comes to the written word. Such pedantry is not normally shared by most people so I usually keep it to myself, and attempt to tame the inner beast with readings from Eats, Shoots & Leaves and consoling emails from fellow pedant Carolyn Wood, while crying myself to sleep at night every time I see a misplaced apostrophe.

However, I’ve decided at long last to vent about it on my blog, even if it only changes the way a handful of people use our language.

So, on with lesson #1

Without any shadow of a doubt, the biggest number of mistakes I see online centre around the use of “its” and “it’s” (with most people opting for “it’s” — with the apostrophe — almost all of the time). I’m seeing these glaring mistakes crop up in blog posts by respected designers, online magazine articles, and even in official product press releases. I don’t expect to turn anyone into a pedant, but with so many people writing online today and with everyone having the potential to become an internet journalist, it’s important to get the basics right. So here’s how it works:

  • It’s = a contraction of “it is” or “it has.”
  • Its = possessive, used when talking about something that belongs to the “it” (the subject); e.g: “WordPress has its quirks,” or, “the oven had its main fan replaced,” or, “Apple has come to its senses and released a matte screen for its MacBook Pro line.”

It’s completely understandable where the confusion arises: we’re taught at school to use an apostrophe if something belongs to something else. However, “its” is one of those strange exceptions to the rule (just like “yours” / “hers” / “theirs”).

Apostrophe users of the world, unite!

If you’ve found this useful (and I hope you have), spread the word. If you see someone stabbing an innocent “its” with a blunt apostrophe, send them a link to this entry (or chop their hands off so that they may never write again — your choice).

Parting thought: using the possessive “its” correctly will save you a precious character in Twitter. :p

59 comments

  1. Dave Sparks

    Dave Sparks

    13 August 2009 @ 04:57PM #

    Lesson #2 their they’re and there maybe?
    I can see a whole series of Elliots English tips!

  2. Dave Sparks

    Dave Sparks

    13 August 2009 @ 04:58PM #

    or should that be Elliot’s English tips?

  3. Pete

    Pete

    13 August 2009 @ 04:59PM #

    I think it’s probably also worth pointing out that there is no such form as “its’” which is something I see from time to time (notably from our “copywriters”.

    Love the use of the Ripping Yarns picture too. Beatifully subtle.

  4. Pete

    Pete

    13 August 2009 @ 05:00PM #

    Damn! I spelt beautifully incorrectly!

  5. jbcarey

    jbcarey

    13 August 2009 @ 05:00PM #

    This is a very interesting lesson/ blogpost. It is probably the most funny rant/vent I’ve read in a while….

    Please forgive any spelling or grammar mistakes in above message, the repliers native language isn’t English

  6. pedantic sean

    pedantic sean

    13 August 2009 @ 05:02PM #

    “It’s = an abbreviation of “it is” or “it has.”"

    may cause confusion to the already confused – “it has” implies possession – i think it’ll be easier to understand leaving it as “it is”

    … but well said – it gets my goat too :)

  7. Chris Rowe

    Chris Rowe

    13 August 2009 @ 05:02PM #

    Glad someone with a loud enough voice is making this point.
    It could be worse, I’ve seen its’ used before.

  8. Marc

    Marc

    13 August 2009 @ 05:02PM #

    @Dave Nobody knows ;)

    I’m just as bad – it really drives me insane. Now I’ve read this though, I’m really worried about getting it wrong!

    What I do like is gratuitous use of semi-colons – they’re like the most useful punctuation ever! Let’s get us an article on when they’re correct so more people can feel the loving; they’re great.

    (I had to use one, of course)

  9. Ben Bodien

    Ben Bodien

    13 August 2009 @ 05:03PM #

    Flying Circus rather than Ripping Yarns, but yes, good choice :)

    I normally see past it’s and its, but you’re and your always grates for me.

  10. Lance

    Lance

    13 August 2009 @ 05:05PM #

    Yeah, I agree with Dave :p

  11. Sean Turtle

    Sean Turtle

    13 August 2009 @ 05:08PM #

    I could write an entire book on things like this.

    The worst for me is people confusing lose/loose. I also tend to remove friends from Facebook/Twitter etc. if they don’t post using the correct grammar and punctuation. And phonetic spelling, and contractions for the sake of texting. Argh!

  12. Mark McDermott

    Mark McDermott

    13 August 2009 @ 05:09PM #

    Apologies for not being exactly on the grammar theme with this one but I am constantly amazed by the way intelligent people spell ‘definitely’.

    Not definately.
    Not definatly.
    Not definantly.
    Not definetly.
    Not definently.
    And certainly not defiantly.

    (courtesy of http://www.d-e-f-i-n-i-t-e-l-y.com/ – I am not alone)

  13. Erwin Heiser

    Erwin Heiser

    13 August 2009 @ 05:09PM #

    Next up: the difference between “there”, “they’re” and “their” :)

  14. Matt Hill

    Matt Hill

    13 August 2009 @ 05:10PM #

    From one pedant to another, you got the title of Lynne’s book wrong. It’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”. Note the comma. :-)

  15. Erwin Heiser

    Erwin Heiser

    13 August 2009 @ 05:10PM #

    Mark, you beat me to the definitely thing, that one bugs the crap out of me too!

  16. Chris McQueen

    Chris McQueen

    13 August 2009 @ 05:12PM #

    In a far more articulate manner than I could ever manage, Stephen Fry mirrors my thoughts on why “the sheer act of reading and of writing and of talking is enough.”

    Read Stephen’s full post, “Don’t Mind Your Language…” over at http://www.stephenfry.com/2008/11/04/don’t-mind-your-language…/

    Elliot, I’m convinced you should have better things to worry about! Let’s not get tangled up in pedantry and get on with communicating effectively, politely and with purpose.

  17. Matt Hill

    Matt Hill

    13 August 2009 @ 05:12PM #

    Oh, and “It’s” is never used as a contraction for “It has”, it’s only a contraction of “It is”.

  18. Nick

    Nick

    13 August 2009 @ 05:14PM #

    Dave, it’s the second one (Elliot’s) for those who’d like more apostrophe guidance/fun check out Eat Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

  19. xun

    xun

    13 August 2009 @ 05:16PM #

    Great. I always confuse with “its” and “it’s”. Thanks for the short tips, ‘teacher’.
    Haha.

  20. Dave Child

    Dave Child

    13 August 2009 @ 05:16PM #

    You’re post literally make’s me explode with two much “rage”. Their is know excuse for this abuse of English.

  21. Han

    Han

    13 August 2009 @ 05:24PM #

    Thanks for this Jay. This frustrates me to no end as well. What I find even more frustrating, however, is the number of designers I come across who don’t seem to take writing seriously as a part of their job. Or worse, don’t think it’s their job at all—and the copy writing gnomes will magically appear to whisk away their lorum ipsum!

    I can count the number of times I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a copywriter on my thumbs. (Most of the interface copy on Last.fm is written by me, another designer and our head of web. Ops holds onto the copy of Strunk & White for emergencies).

    It didn’t come naturally at first, I really had to work hard on my spelling and grammar (or rather, my mother—a writer/editor tirelessly drilled it into me every day after school). If there’s one piece of advice I have for design students or people starting off in their career, it’s: “Learn to write. Communication is your job”.

  22. Dan

    Dan

    13 August 2009 @ 05:26PM #

    Ah, Elliot.

    It seems you have become as disillusioned as I of late. I have good days and bad days where I either can or can’t tolerate butchery of simple spelling and grammar. This was one of the bad days.

    Although this lesson was great I feel you’re missing a trick. You should use your high profile status to publicly condemn the use of text speak and the use of “carnt” instead of “can’t”

  23. Jaysone

    Jaysone

    13 August 2009 @ 05:33PM #

    Nice one :)

  24. Clinton Montague

    Clinton Montague

    13 August 2009 @ 05:38PM #

    Brilliant! I must admit that I used to be guilty of this, but luckily I have learnt the errors of my ways. Other words I see people having trouble with are they’re/their/there and where/were.

    Look forwards to more English lessons!

  25. Micheil Smith

    Micheil Smith

    13 August 2009 @ 05:39PM #

    I actually have more of a problem with the people who should know better English than to be writing in “txtspk” in more or less official communications. I guess it goes to show how professional some people are.

  26. Frank Stallone

    Frank Stallone

    13 August 2009 @ 05:39PM #

    I usually ask myself it if ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ makes sense in the sentence, but then again I am from America and butcher the Queens language daily. LOL <3

    Thanks for the tips Elliot!

  27. Matt Senior

    Matt Senior

    13 August 2009 @ 06:02PM #

    Excellent, I love a bit of pedantry :)

    The quotation marks and apostrophes throughout this article look suspiciously straight—maybe it’s just the font—any reason for not using the proper ones?

    Surely ‘it’s’ is fine for ‘it has’, e.g. it’s been a particularly poor year for employment figures.

    Maybe I’m completely wrong, in which case I also love a bit of hypocrisy.

    Cheers.

  28. Alex

    Alex

    13 August 2009 @ 06:06PM #

    And ‘s vs s’s?

    http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=29285

    Killer design on the site, btw.

  29. kat neville

    kat neville

    13 August 2009 @ 06:17PM #

    I am a huge spelling/grammar snob too. And for all those out there who say, “It doesn’t matter!”, yes it does. It matters because if someone has to re-read your blog post to try and decipher which word/spelling you meant, you have just ruined the flow. So, while trying to figure out what you mean, they have forgotten the whole point of the article.

    And those who say this stuff doesn’t matter are usually the WORST spellers.

  30. Aaron Willis

    Aaron Willis

    13 August 2009 @ 06:19PM #

    It doesn’t help the matter that the iPhone auto-corrects its to it’s. Always. Can I blame my bad grammer on my iPhone? For what it’s worth, the “there, they’re, and their” controversy is just as bad as the “you’re, your” problems I see everyday. Thanks for the post.

  31. Nan McElroy

    Nan McElroy

    13 August 2009 @ 06:31PM #

    Why it’s not always “it’s,” since an apostrophe is used everywhere else to indicate possession, is beyond me, but there you are.

    When I make this error, it’s not because I don’t know better, but because my eyes don’t catch the errors my lazy fingers make; when I discover it after the fact I am horrified…

    I can write, and I can edit. It’s hard to do both (under externally imposed time constraints, I mean).

    p.s. This theme/site is pure pleasure (as is the Stark site theme). Thanks.

  32. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    13 August 2009 @ 06:39PM #

    Thanks for all your comments, everyone! To all those who mentioned you’re / your or there / their / they’re, yes, I think that’ll be lesson #2 (not that this was ever intended to be a series, but after all these responses, I just might do it)!

    @ Marc: Yes, I’m a big semicolon fan, too. They’re also extremely misunderstood! They require a separate post, I think.

    @ Matt Hill: Well spotted. Thanks!

    @ Chris McQueen: That’s just the point, though: this is a part of communicating effectively (as Kat notes above).

    @ Matt Hill (2): It’s totally valid. Consider: “it’s been lovely weather today,” or, “it’s been ages since we’ve met.” Also, see the Dictionary.com entry. :)

    @ Han: So well put! That could (in fact should) be a blog post in itself.

    @ Matt Senior: Yes, they are. Looks like the plugin that’s meant to handle that is no longer working. I’ll look into it. Thanks for spotting!

  33. Rick

    Rick

    13 August 2009 @ 06:44PM #

    Considering myself as a humble folk from the 3rd world in the far east who don’t even speak the language everyday, it surprised me when I encounter this kind of embarrassing mistakes on blog posts, especially those from the west that I consider fluent enough in written English.

  34. Colly

    Colly

    13 August 2009 @ 06:59PM #

    Good work. I am notoriously guilty on this front, despite being a genius at everything else. Nobody is perfect. Thing is, I have been told how to use it’s/its correctly approximately 900 times, but it’s one of those things that just falls out of my head.

    Perhaps you can write a second post telling the world how to spell “definitely”. I cry every time I see “defanately”. or “definately” or “defanitely” or any other variant.

  35. Rick

    Rick

    13 August 2009 @ 07:19PM #

    It’s a good thing that Firefox got spellchecker.

  36. Gaby

    Gaby

    13 August 2009 @ 07:23PM #

    Its vs it’s is something I always have to check my writing for carefully. I admit I’m not a particularly great speller – I hated spelling at school – so I check my writing carefully anyway. But for some reason the its/it’s rule gets lost somewhere between my brain and my fingers while I type, so I often have to look it up to remind myself. Lately though it has stuck thanks to a site that wrote, similar to you have here, to remember that “his” and “hers” don’t have an apostrophe.

    I love that someone commented about “definitely”! That’s another one I had to keep reminding myself of.

    I’m not even particularly ashamed to admit I have trouble spelling. I just tackle it as one might at school; correct my spelling of a word until eventually it just sticks.

    Built in browser spell checkers really help. I don’t just let myself correct the word; I force myself to remember what I did wrong.

  37. Brendan Dawes

    Brendan Dawes

    13 August 2009 @ 07:37PM #

    I think this says it all from Mr. Fry:

    “They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.”

    I’d rather read a compelling story with bad grammar than a boring story with perfect grammar. Yes, having the two – compelling story and good grammar is the ideal, but I’m not going to discount a good story because of it. Personally I can’t stand the Lynne Truss nazis. But maybe that’s just me.

    Now. Time to click the world’s biggest submit button…

  38. Simon Willans

    Simon Willans

    13 August 2009 @ 10:18PM #

    I too find little things like this quite annoying. It’s like that episode of Friends where Ross is arguing with Rachael about “your” vs. “you’re”.

    I hope I’m not alone in looking for an it’s/its error in Elliot’s post :D

  39. Mike Mella

    Mike Mella

    14 August 2009 @ 02:13AM #

    Something I’ve seen a lot lately is the use of the apostrophe to denote a plural, as in “I just bought some new shoe’s.”

    That one really astounds me.

  40. Jesse Cary

    Jesse Cary

    14 August 2009 @ 02:53AM #

    My wife often sends me a text/IM note saying “your cute” when she is in a good mood. I wish I was more pleased with the thought than* annoyed with the execution, but I’m a pedant also.

    *she would have put “then”. sigh…

  41. Vasily Myazin

    Vasily Myazin

    14 August 2009 @ 06:12AM #

    Lynne Truss sure helped me to open my eyes on how illiterate the world is. Thanks for chiming in on this effort, Elliot. Sticklers unite!

  42. Jesse Cary

    Jesse Cary

    14 August 2009 @ 05:53PM #

    annoyed by the execution?

  43. englishguideonline

    englishguideonline

    14 August 2009 @ 09:04PM #

    There is no wonder if one calls such mistakes as ‘killing.’ Recently it has become a fashionable trend to attach less importance to written forms of words or sentences, especially in cases of spelling or putting an apostrophe. Even well educated persons think it is unnecessary to follow such exactness in spelling. They are quite content if what they have written is read and understood by others. So Jay, you go on. May your words lessen the density in the world of ‘assassins.’

  44. Moa

    Moa

    15 August 2009 @ 02:07AM #

    Heh. As a non-native English speaker, these mistakes drive me nuts. Not so much its/it’s – even though that’s plenty annoying, thanks – but their/they’re, you’re/your, whose/who’s mixups sometimes make texts completely incomprehensible. I’m getting better at deciphering these errors, but seriously. I should not have to learn pidgeon English to understand native speakers. ;)

    “Definately” is another pet peeve.

    And after getting all that off my chest, there is probably a really glaring error or two in this comment. waves non-native flag

  45. pam golafshar

    pam golafshar

    15 August 2009 @ 07:49AM #

    From one passionate English grammar nerd to another – great post!

    Now, my question is, how much design time do you spend proofreading the text in your projects, so that you can put your name on something that doesn’t have such errors? I constantly struggle with this: on the one hand, if my client doesn’t feel the need to show the text to an editor or proofreader, it’s clearly not part of a designer’s duties to assume the role (unless it’s agreed upon at the beginning of a project and the client knows they will be billed accordingly); but on the other hand, I find it difficult at best to put something out there that I’ve designed that has blatant errors in English usage. How do you handle this struggle?

    And I’m just kidding. You’re definitely not a nerd.

  46. Brian Heys

    Brian Heys

    15 August 2009 @ 11:01AM #

    Hi Elliot, newbie here!

    I too am a bit of a stickler when it comes to correct use of punctuation, and feel a strange cocktail of amusement and annoyance whenever I come across an example of the above.

    I don’t know if you read it too, but recently, there was a blog post floating around explaining how we should all write for the web. It went into great detail about dropping commas, not using apostrophes, etc. This article basically suggested we should ‘dumb down’ our writing, and I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

    Needless to say it didn’t make it into my delicious bookmarks!

  47. David Little

    David Little

    17 August 2009 @ 12:04AM #

    Yes, drives me mad too! Its = possessive, like his, hers, ours, not “hi’s”, “her’s”, “our’s” etc. Say no to apostrophe abuse :)

  48. Charles Roper

    Charles Roper

    18 August 2009 @ 11:20PM #

    Good stuff. I’m sure the pixel pushing nature of web design predisposes us web designers to the delicious pedantry associated with good grammar and punctuation.

    What is quite interesting, though, is that we don’t have a ‘standards body’ for English in the same way as, say, the French do (in the form of the Académie française), so really it is a case of anything goes and that’s the beauty of the English language. That’s the point Stephen Fry is making when he scolds pedants; it’s A Good Thing the English language is so supple and we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn new words and new usages.

    But that doesn’t negate the satisfaction and indeed aesthetic pleasures to be had from well punctuated prose. Yet, the real importance of good punctuation should not be overlooked. It is a quality all good writers and designers should be striving for. That quality, through which the use of judicious, precice punctuation can bring, is meaning.

    Attention to good punctuation and grammar is attention to meaning, and that, I affirm, is not pedantic at all but at the very heart of the disciplines of writing and designing. To enhance meaning is the very essence of what we do.

    Parenthetically, one of my favourite books on the subject of punctuation is the slender yet sharp Penguin Guide to Punctuation, which can be read from cover to cover in less than a day and is a snip at a penny under six quid. Highly recommended.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Penguin-Guide-Punctuation-Reference-Books/dp/0140513663

  49. Charles Roper

    Charles Roper

    18 August 2009 @ 11:27PM #

    By the way, while we’re being pedantic, “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” rather than an abbreviation:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contraction_%28grammar%29

    But let’s not split hairs, eh? ;)

  50. Shane

    Shane

    19 August 2009 @ 01:57PM #

    “Lets buy lots of CD’s of music from the 1980’s”.

    That annoys me quite a bit. There are two apostrophes, when there should only be one (and in a different place.)

    Seriously – how hard is this stuff? It amazes me how so many people get it wrong.

  51. Gregory Alan Elliott

    Gregory Alan Elliott

    19 August 2009 @ 06:20PM #

    English. You don’t have to love it, but you should. Teachers too…

    “English Teachers. They’re there for their students.” – Gregory Alan Elliott

    If you use it on a t-shirt or bumper sticker, leave the credit attached.

  52. Matt Hill

    Matt Hill

    02 September 2009 @ 05:02PM #

    “@ Matt Hill (2): It’s totally valid. Consider: “it’s been lovely weather today,” or, “it’s been ages since we’ve met.” Also, see the Dictionary.com entry. :)"

    Good point, I was thinking along the lines of “It has alloy wheels” - people for whom English is a second language might also contract that based on your statement, thus giving “It’s alloy wheels” which clearly doesn’t make sense ;)

  53. abajan

    abajan

    03 September 2009 @ 10:36PM #

    Yep. I see “its” and “it’s” used incorrectly all the time. “Their,” “there” and “they’re” also come readily to mind. But the one I see most often is “your” when the writer really means “you’re” (the shortened form of “you are”).

    And it’s not just the written word that’s getting massacred. The “Th” in the names “Thomas” and “Thompson” should never be pronounced as it is in the word “thump.” (I know there is some leeway when it comes to proper names but convention should still be given due consideration.)

  54. Violet Bliss Dietz

    Violet Bliss Dietz

    30 September 2009 @ 06:54PM #

    Well-said Elliot. It always amazes me when I arrive on a web designer/developer’s website and find such misspellings, particularly on the landing page. A recent one which shall go unnamed had 5 such misspellings including the classic it’s when it should have been its. I broke down and sent that web developer an email using their contact form mentioning the misspellings.

    I know that not all web developers profess to be expert copy writers as well but for heaven’s sake, use a spell checker. Or get someone you know to be a “bit of a pedant” to proofread your website.

    I think web designers and developers need to understand that their site is, in a very real way, their resume that they’re sending to a potential employer. And as someone who worked in executive recruiting for some time, I can tell you that resumes with misspellings and basic grammar errors get discarded.

    I’m sure websites do too for just the same reasons. Pay attention to detail including the spelling and grammar on your website.

    Sorry didn’t mean to get carried away but obviously, I agree with you.

  55. Philippine Outsourcing

    Philippine Outsourcing

    07 October 2009 @ 10:03AM #

    haha, so true.. there are a lot of misused words not mention misspelled words in the English language. And the confusion commonly arises from words that sound alike but have different uses and meanings and are spelled differently. Classic examples of which, aside from those mentioned in this article, are: there, their and they’re; your and you’re, etc..

    So.. when do we see lesson #2? Can’t wait! ;-)

  56. Bustor

    Bustor

    09 October 2009 @ 05:19PM #

    Proper language usage is very important.We invent the language and our ways of handling it finds ways in slangs,short terms and the like.
    You have a point.

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