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Pavement pedantry: its not it’s

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Possessive apostrophes. They’re the bane of our lives. But getting it right is actually pretty easy.

If something belongs to a named someone (a proper noun), use an apostrophe. Amie’s swing dancing ability. Clare’s coffee addictionNicola’s love of gin.

Fine so far. But then you come to it. Surely it would make sense that it would have an apostrophe in the same context. No so. Why? Because it is not like Amie, or Clare or Nicola. It can’t have a swing dance ability. Or a coffee addiction. Or a love of gin. Because it is inanimate. It is generic. It is not a specific someone doing a specific something. So it can’t possess.

In short, nothing can belong to it, because it isn’t human. And belonging or owning are human characteristics. Deep, huh.

Generally, you’ll only be using its when referring to a state of being, an inanimate object performing an action, or something, rather than someone. So it doesn’t behave in the same way as a person. For example its time has come, or the boat was hit by a surge of waves. Its hull bobbed up and down in the water.

An easier, less philosophical way to look at it is this: think about it in the same way you would think of his or her and use it like that. His or her are not specific (it’s the wider context that makes them specific), they are possessive pronouns, not proper nouns. You don’t put a possessive apostrophe on his or her. So you don’t on it.

The only time you use an apostrophe with it, is when you are contracting it and is. A totally different way of using it. It’s simple, really.

So here’s a quick test to see if it’s hit home…

Do these its have apostrophes or not?

– Its/It’s a lovely day.

– Eurovision. Its/it’s not the same without Terry. Its/it’s draw is less magnetic now.

– Match of the Day is off its/it’s rocker if it thinks we want to see Gary Lineker in his underpants.

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