It’s, Its and Its’ – Fun with Apostrophes
We use apostrophes for many reasons; because we’re being lazy, because we’re being deliberately informal, because we’re highlighting a bit of text, or because we’re indicating ownership.
Because we’re being lazy.
It isn’t fun to type out every little thing, especially those parts of speech we use often. In just the previous two sentences, I have used used apostrophes to make my writing easier:
we’re – we are
isn’t – is not
In these instances, the apostrophe has indicated a contraction, taking the place of missing letters.
Using contractions such as those above, normally is a straightforward affair. However, as is often the case, some people take things to the extreme. I discuss a few examples below.
On just one occasion in the English language, apostrophes appear thrice in the same word: fo’c’s’le, (meaning forecastle, a nautical term for a raised part of the upper deck of a ship).
In contrast, there are several examples in English of words with double contractions. I often use I’d’ve (I’d have); ‘wouldn’t’ve (wouldn’t have); mustn’t’ve (mustn’t have) but there are lots of others too. For a more complete list, look up the Wikipedia article here.
Because we’re being deliberately informal.
Except when employed in a technical term such as fo’c’s’le, contractions imply casual speech. Thus, “I’m a hardworking man” is a perfectly acceptable when writing to a friend, regaling him with tales of your superhuman effort in the workplace, but it is less acceptable in a résumé or CV, where it betrays an air of laziness (see above, Because we’re being lazy). Therefore, the upshot of the foregoing is: don’t use contractions in formal writing.
Because we’re highlighting a bit of text.
There are times when we need to highlight some words in our writing. Whether it is ‘highlighted’ using apostrophes, or highlighted using italics, or highlighted using bold text, the intent remains the same: to cause the reader to pay special attention to the highlighted word(s). Consider these sentences below:
I sat down and read the magazine.
I ‘sat’ down and read the magazine.
I sat ‘down’ and read the magazine.
I sat down and ‘read’ the magazine.
I sat down and read the ‘magazine’.
In each sentence above, where employed, apostrophes have changed the meaning of the sentence considerably.
I ‘sat’ down and read the magazine. – Implies that I did not sit in a normal fashion.
I sat ‘down’ and read the magazine. – Implies that although I sat, it was not into the normal sitting-down position, but into an unusual attitude.
I sat down and ‘read’ the magazine. – This implies that I did not in fact read the magazine; perhaps I only pretended to.
I sat down and read the ‘magazine’. – This implies that I was not reading what normally is understood to be a magazine.
Because we’re indicating ownership.
Personal pronouns in the singular are easy:
The book belongs to him; it is his book.
The book belongs to her; it is her book.
The letter is his.
The letter is hers.
‘His’, ‘hers’ are the personal pronouns used above, and indicate ownership. However, what about impersonal pronouns? What if the owner of an object is not gendered?
This book is damaged. It has lost nearly all its pages.
The drawer is empty. Its contents have been removed.
This ball is hard to pump with air. You have spoilt its valve.
Previously, in the 1600s, apostrophes were used to indicate ownership, thus the sentences above might have written like this:
This book is damaged. It has lost nearly all it’s pages.
The drawer is empty. It’s contents have been removed.
This ball is hard to pump with air. You have spoilt it’s valve.
By the 1960s, it was decided that this usage was too confusing, so the apostrophes were being employed to show ownership like this:
This book is damaged. It has lost nearly all its’ pages.
The drawer is empty. Its’ contents have been removed.
This ball is hard to pump with air. You have spoilt its’ valve.
However, even this use of the apostrophe is deprecated, and now the sentences above are written without any apostrophe whatsoever.
It’s – it is; the apostrophe denotes a contraction and therefore, at least one missing letter.
It’s a great day to go outside
It is a great day to go outside
Its – an impersonal pronoun indicating ownership.
The book has lost its covers.
The covers of the book are lost.
Its’ – an obsolete form of it’s, when used to indicate ownership.
Example (but no longer used in modern English):
The book has lost its’ covers.
The covers of the book are lost.