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What is a good mnemonic rule that an English learner can use to remember the difference between its (possessive adjective: a team has started its lunch) and it's (verb: it's raining)?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I'm not sure of how good a mnemonic this is, but it's always worked for me. When proofreading, I simply remind myself:

You can't remove an apostrophe when it's taking the place of a letter.

So, when I say:

It's supposed to rain tomorrow.

I recognize that "It's" means "It is", so I leave the apostrophe in. But when I type and proofread:

The house is losing it's foundation. [sic]

I realize that "it's" does not mean "it is"; it means "the foundation belonging to it", so I remove the apostrophe:

The house is losing its foundation.

If you don't like my method, it's easy to find lots more on the subject.

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@bytebuster Collins: mnemonic (adj.) helping, or meant to help, the memory. The phrase "You can't remove an apostrophe when it's taking the place of a letter" has helped me remember the rule. I was answering the question with a mnemonic device I've used since middle school, not duplicating something that happened to be mentioned in an earlier answer. – J.R. Jan 27 '13 at 22:45
@bytebuster: The O.P. asked for "a good mnemonic rule" – that looks like an adjective to me. I do think you're splitting hairs, though. If what's helped me for 30 years ends up helping Marco (or anyone else who struggles with remembering which is which), isn't that what ELL is all about? Besides, I thought I made it very clear – from my opening phrase, and again in my closing remark – that I was keenly aware that it's not a traditional mnemonic, and that I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't the best aid for everyone. But I believe it's still worth including in the conversation. – J.R. Jan 27 '13 at 22:57
@J.R.: I'd never thought of it that way, but your mnemonic (bytebuster's carping notwithstanding) does seem quite a good one to me. It's easy to remember, and would also help reduce the number of times people write dont, for example. Which gets much more irritating with things like cant, wont, which some of us might otherwise be tempted to read as valid words in their own right (not a problem that bothers some of those who write them, since they often don't even know of such words! :) – FumbleFingers Jan 27 '13 at 23:18
@CoolHand - I think your comment would have made a better answer than a comment. – J.R. Jan 9 at 9:34
@CoolHand - I'm glad I said something; I hadn't noticed that. That answer now has it's [sic] first well-deserved upvote :-) – J.R. Jan 9 at 9:55

You just know that it's stands for it is, two words.
Its is just a single word, like my, your or his.

When reading, you just see if it is a single word or two words "linked" with an apostrophe.

For writing, you may employ this mnemonic:

I'm crying and saying, "it's not my fault!"

A tear will resemble to write it with an apostrophe.

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How is that a mnemonic? One could just as easily incorrectly write, I'm crying and saying, "its not my fault". Again, one has to know the rule to apply it, which is circular. – CoolHandLouis Jan 9 at 10:38
He's saying that the apostrophe looks like a little teardrop. That's why the sentence is about crying, rather than about something else. – Brian Hitchcock Feb 26 at 8:49


This is a new answer (Jan 2015) to a two-year old question (Jan 2013).

I revived this thread because I believe this provides a best-of-class answer that complements the well-deserved selected answer by J.R.. It's a tall order to come in so late with such a bold statement. I only ask that as you assess the value of this answer (for better or worse!), to keep in mind that this is relatively new, and so this has not received the same benefit of attention as answers given two years ago when the question was first asked.


Until now, there has been no gold standard, easy-to-remember mnemonic that helps someone generate the correct form-to-meaning of its vs. it's. So I created a mnemonic device specifically for this answer. It's short, clear, and easy-to-remember.

This is the mnemonic device:


That's it! That's the mnemonic device: It's. If you can remember that, then you can remember what it means. Don't believe me? Just watch.

  • Question: What is that thing I just told you to remember? What is it, if you break it into its parts?

    Answer: It's a pronoun followed by apostrophe S.

Just look at it (below). Doesn't that look like a pronoun? Followed by apostrophe S? Is that so hard?

it               's
pronoun      apostrophe S

It's a pronoun followed by apostrophe S.

Let's do that again.

It's <-- What is that thing to the left? It's a pronoun followed by apostrophe S.

Put it all together!

  1. It's
  2. What is that?
  3. It's a pronoun followed by apostrophe S.
  4. It is a pronoun followed by apostrophe S.
  5. So It's means "It is".
  6. And its is the possessive pronoun.

Explain it please!

This mnemonic device is powerful because it uses a combination of auditory and visual cuing (along with some common sense) all the way through. (See link and link.)

The word it's cues the recall of "the sentence" (#3 above) describing what it's is. You know you have to write that sentence with the apostrophe. And that sentence demands the "it is" interpretation! Now you know it's means "it is" and conversely, its must be the possessive form.

This mnemonic should be spread to the four corners of the English speaking world!
(And, of course, credit given to CoolHandLouis. :)

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CoolHandLouis: good belated answer. Do you mean to "compliment" J.R.'s answer, or "complement" it, or both? I would say that your Preface compliments his answer, and your Answer complements it. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 11 at 7:20
@BrianHitchcock Thanks! Fixed. – CoolHandLouis Feb 26 at 9:11

Its and my is "just one word".

"A team has started its lunch."

If I can substitute its (one word) with another possessive adjective my (one word), and the resulting phrase is grammatical then there is no need for the apostrophe e.g.,

A team has started my lunch

"my lunch" is grammatical so no apostrophe is required (the possessive adjective, its, is 'just one word'.)

"Today it's raining"

When we substitute it's raining (or its) with my we get:

Today my raining.

"My raining" as a phrase is not grammatical so it's is the correct spelling (two words; it + is)

Today it is raining = it's raining.

Further examples: (thinking 'yes' or 'no' for grammatical and ungrammatical)

The company has lost __ licence.

The company has lost my licence ----> grammatical ---> my ('just one word') ---> its

Check to see if __ gone

Check to see if my gone ----> ungrammatical ---> we need two words ---> it's (it + has)

The reef shark chases __ prey through the coral

... chases my prey through the coral ----> grammatical ---> my ('just one word') ---> its

This isn't my book, __ Fernando's.

This isn't my book, my Fernando's. ----> ungrammatical ---> we need two words ---> It's (It + is)

The dog is eating __ dinner.

The dog is eating my dinner ----> grammatical ---> my ('just one word') ---> its

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Another not-quite-mnemonic method of remembering. This may not be helpful to people who have no exposure to English poetic forms:

I learned to keep them straight by keeping in mind the poetic form, 'tis.

It's is             .....        the same as 'tis.

'Tis the season to be jolly

....Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

'Tis but a scratch

These all mean the same as it's. Conveniently, they are written with the same four characters, rearranged - move the apostrophe and the t to the front, and you go from it's to 'tis.

The possessive its is not a synonym for 'tis, so it cannot be rearranged in the same way, so it doesn't have an apostrophe.

So the "mnemonic" is again:

It's    is             .....        the same as 'tis.

Emphasize the bold parts to give it a lilting rythm.

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Make up your own exercise of the type thing + part of it. Model

1 a house has a roof - Change it to: the house and its roof

2 the book and its price

3 the bag and its contents

Make up ten examples of your own. Then I think you won't need a mnemotechnical aid.

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Again, this has no generative effect for remembering whether it's "the house and its roof" or "the house and it's roof". Verbal memory doesn't include the punctuation. I'm updating my answer to explain this. – CoolHandLouis Jan 9 at 9:43
Of course, such an exercise must be made in written form. It's no use doing it orally. – rogermue Feb 26 at 16:48

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