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Using the Right Word: Its vs It's, Your vs You're, and Their vs They're

written by: Rebecca Scudder • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 11/30/2013

Often we have problems remembering the difference between the possessive determiners its, your, and their and the contractions it's, you're, and they're--especially when writing in a hurry. The possessive determiners also are confused with possessive pronouns. Here's how to use them, with examples.

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    Almost every contraction uses an apostrophe. And, every contraction involves the shortening or blending of words, even without an English and Language Arts Rules apostrophe. We'll get back to that further along.

    To start with, many of us think of my, your, his, her, its, our, your, and their as possesive pronouns. They are not. Read this article for a great explanation of the English pronoun system, and check out the section at the end on possesive determiners.

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    Possessive Determiners

    These are the possessive determiners, sometimes mistakenly called possessive adjectives.

    • my - the first person singular
    • your - the second person singular
    • his - the third person singular masculine
    • her - the third person singular feminine
    • its - the third person singular neuter
    • our - the first person plural
    • your - the second person plural
    • their - the third person plural

    Possessive determiners indicate that an object is associated with another object or person: it belongs with it. Possessive determiners show to whom an item or being is referring.

    • Its case is dusty.
    • Your PC needs cleaning.
    • Their PCs are covered in dirt.
    • My computer is clean.

    Possessive determiners are somewhat similar to adjectives. They are determining possession of a noun or pronoun while an adjective describes a quality belonging to the noun.

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    Possessive Pronouns

    These are the possessive pronouns.

    • mine - the first person singular
    • yours - the second person singular
    • his - the third person singular masculine
    • hers - the third person singular feminine
    • its - the third person singular neuter
    • ours - the first person plural
    • yours - the second person plural
    • theirs - the third person plural

    Possessive pronouns indicate what object or person belongs to another: they inform you of a person or being who possesses or owns something without saying the actual name of the person or being.

    • Mine is the clean computer.
    • Yours is the PC that needs cleaning.
    • Theirs are the PCs covered with dirt.
    • Its (think neuter alien) processing unit is covered in cosmic dust.
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    Possessive Nouns

    Possessive nouns do have apostrophes. The nouns can be either ordinary or proper nouns, but not pronouns.

    • The dog's fence has a computerized remote monitor.
    • John's fence keeps his dog in the yard.
    • Aztunlk's forcefield around the green parasite is controlled by his processing unit.

    The wall that belongs to Rebecca, also known as Rebecca's wall, cannot be said in the first person as a possessive without a pronoun to mean myself. I need to say the wall is mine to indicate I possess a wall, and I cannot do it with a noun unless I talk about myself in the third person. Otherwise, I have to use a possessive pronoun to refer to myself and say my wall and therefore do not use an apostrophe because I am again using the first person possessive singular pronoun.

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    And Now, Contractions and Possessive Determiners

    It's is the contraction for it is. Its is the possessive determiner. The format is slightly counter-intuitive but rather important to remember. Think of it with the idea that possessive contractions will always have apostrophes but possessive determiners do not. That also includes you're / your and they're / their as well as its / it's. If you use a possessive determiner in a contraction, you are using the word as a shorter way of saying the sentence---a contraction---and those use apostrophes to make it clear they are contractions. Basically, only possessive nouns and contractions use the apostrophe with the exception of describing, not using, numbers and letters.

    • It's Johns turn to clean the computer screen this time. Or, it is John's turn to clean the computer screen this time.
    • You're going to clean the computer screen now. Or, you are going to clean the computer screen now.
    • They're ready to clean the monitor. Or, they are ready to clean the monitor.
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    The Confusion

    Most of your confusion with your / you're and their / they're is that you're associating the two words because they have identical pronunciation. If you are thinking of a sentence and jot or type it quickly, sometimes your fingers substitute the wrong word because the sound in your mind is the same. Your fingers usually type the word you use most often, even if you're thinking of the correct word. If you look at it again, you will notice the mistake.

    Its / it's is a little harder. We are used to possessive nouns needing an apostrophe to indicate possession, and it's seems to look just like a possessive form.

    Additional confusion comes from the fact that the possessive determiner for the singular masculine, his, and the possessive determiner for the third person neuter, its, have the same spelling as the possessive pronouns for the singular masculine and the third person neuter. The way to tell which part of speech they actually are is found through context and the placement of the word in the sentence. Unfortunately, because the spelling of two of the possessive determiners and possessive pronouns is the same, sometimes people generalize that all possessive determiners and possessive pronouns have the same spelling or are the same word.

    Perhaps an example that shows a similar problem can help your confusion. Read and read are spelled the same way. But, they are two different words. To distinguish them in the written form, you need to use context and sometimes say the sentence in your head. In this case, they are pronounced differently, which does make things easier.

    • They had read the book yesterday.
    • They have to read the book today.

    It's worth the effort to remember that its is possessive because you show you have good grammar skills. The mistake jumps out at people who know the difference. It makes them think you don't know the correct grammar to use,or that you are careless and do not check over your work. Neither thought leaves a professional impression of you.

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    This attempt to give a courteous rant was brought to you by its, it's, your, you're, their, they're, Aztunlk, John, the dog, and me.