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Posts Tagged ‘Possessive pronouns’

It’s versus Its

The English language has many exceptions to seemingly hard and fast rules, and these exceptions often cause problems for the novice writer. One such issue is the possessive form of the pronoun “it.” First, let’s remind ourselves of what a possessive form is. The possessive form of a noun or pronoun is used to show ownership. When writing the possessive form of almost all other singular nouns, the writer is instructed to add an apostrophe followed by an “s” at the end of the word. Examples include “the duck’s quack,” “the girl’s doll,” and “the man’s son.” Simple, right?

Therefore, you might think that you should simply tack on the requisite apostrophe and “s” to “it” in order to create the possessive form. However, this makes the word “it’s,” which is seen in the English language as the contraction for “it is.” An example of the proper use of the word “it’s” is as follows: “It’s by the cat’s water bowl.” Therefore, we cannot treat the possessive form of “it” in the same way that we treat other singular nouns. For “it,” we simply forgo the apostrophe. In other words, the possessive form of “it” is “its.” An example of the proper use of the possessive form of “it” is “The cat stepped in its water bowl.”

Don’t Slip up with Possessive Pronouns

Be careful not to use plural verb tenses and plural possessive pronouns with singular nouns. This can be tricky, especially when the nouns in question refer to entities (e.g. companies, governments) that contain a lot of people. You might think that because the people define the entities (there would be no governments or companies without their employees) that the entities should be used with plural verbs and pronouns. But watch out!

  • Right: The government’s attitude toward its people was typically positive.
  • Wrong: The government’s attitude toward their people was typically positive.

“The government” is an entity (a “thing”) that requires singular verb forms and singular possessive pronouns. Why not plural verbs or pronouns? Because a government may have many employees, ministers, etc., but it is seen as containing these people. Such people, in essence, “belong” to their governments, much as athletes “belong” to sports teams. As a group, they are defined by their common membership in a single institution, and this institution’s singular identity takes precedent over the individual identities of its members.

Several other examples:

  • Right: The team loses every home game it plays.
  • Wrong: The team lose every home game they play.
  • Right: If the company goes bankrupt, it will have no option but to vacate the premises and auction off its equipment.
  • Wrong: If the company goes bankrupt, they will have no option but to vacate the premises and auction off their equipment.
  • Right: The hospital staff is composed of a set of physicians and nurses.
  • Wrong: The hospital staff are composed of a set of physicians and nurses.

In the latter example, we’re speaking of “hospital staff” as a single entity – a “body” (or group) of people that includes physicians and nurses. Single entities require verbs in singular tenses. The phrasing “hospital staff are” is incorrect because “are” is the present plural form of the verb “to be”.


  • Right: Hospital staff are required to wear uniforms at all times.
  • Wrong: Hospital staff is required to wear uniforms at all times.

Here, it wouldn’t make sense to say “hospital staff is required to wear uniforms.” Were we use to this phraseology, we would be suggesting that the group “hospital staff”, as a whole and as an abstract, single entity, is required to wear uniforms. “Hospital staff are required” implies individual hospital staff members. While individual members of a group may wear uniforms, the group itself (which is abstract and unable to put on clothes) cannot.

Another way to think about the difference: The words “the office” or “our office” may refer to a group of employees who share a common workplace and, together, constitute an entity known as “the office”. For instance, “Our office holds an annual holiday party.” Note that “our office” is used with a singular form of the verb “to hold”. (“Holds” is the same form of “to hold” that would be used with the singular pronouns “he”, “she”, or “it”.) Also consider, “Our office goes out to lunch every Tuesday.” It would not be correct to say, “Our office hold an annual party” or “Our office go out to lunch every Tuesday.” Here, “hold” and “go” (plural forms of the verbs “to hold” and “to go”, respectively) do not “match” the singular noun “our office”. The mismatch holds, even though “our office” consists of multiple people.