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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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3 Answers 3

up vote 15 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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How does it answer the question? OP has asked for a mnemonic rule. –  bytebuster Jan 27 '13 at 22:14
@bytebuster: It's helped me remember the rule for 30 years. Perhaps it's not as traditionally mnemonic as ROY B. GIV or Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, but I've told myself that while proofreading for decades. I've never forgotten it, and it's never failed me. At least for me, that would be more helpful than some whining apostrophe. –  J.R. Jan 27 '13 at 22:31
@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

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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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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