Crafting Better Sentences: Use “It” Carefully

How often do you think about the word it? “Hardly ever” would probably be the answer from most people. And that’s a shame, because it – a highly useful word – can cause punctuation errors and sentence structure problems if you’re not careful.

Here are some tips that many writers have found helpful:

1. Run-ons are by far the most common error when writers use it in a sentence.

Here’s an example:

My English teacher loved my last paper, it earned an A. RUNON

Any idea that starts with a person, place, or thing is a sentence. Sentences end with periods. And since “it” stands for a thing, anything that starts with it is a new sentence.

Here’s a handy guideline: “If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.”

Here’s the corrected sentence:

My English teacher loved my last paper. It earned an A. CORRECT

You can also use a semicolon:

My English teacher loved my last paper; it earned an A. CORRECT

2. The apostrophe in it’s is another cause of confusion for many writers. This problem is easily solved by thinking of the apostrophe as a tiny letter “i.” It’s = it is

When it’s time for the children to line up for lunch, their teacher rings a little bell. CORRECT

3. What if you want to make “it” possessive? This problem is also easily solved if you think about other possessive pronouns: his, hers, ours, yours, theirs. Notice anything? None of them have apostrophes.

This bicycle is mine, and that one is hers. CORRECT

John is adding another bathroom to his house. CORRECT

The possessive word its works the same way:

The company doubled its profits last year. CORRECT

The dog played with its ball for half an hour. CORRECT

4. When do you put an apostrophe at the end of its? NEVER. Does that surprise you? Check the dictionary! In fact that’s what you should do any time you’re confused about it’s and its.

5. If you really want to be a professional writer, you should learn about an error called an “indefinite pronoun reference.” It can occur when you use it in a sentence.

It (and other pronouns like they, that, this, and which) should refer to something specific that you’ve already named. Although this explanation sounds complicated, it’s easy to understand when you look at an example or two.

The kitchen ran out of clean plates, and it caused a delay serving dessert. INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE

What caused the delay? Running out of clean plates.

But those exact words don’t appear in the sentence. Let’s try rewriting it:

Running out of clean plates in the kitchen caused a delay serving dessert. CORRECT

Here’s another example:

Because Linda loves chocolate, it makes losing weight difficult for her.  INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE

What makes losing weight difficult for Linda? Loving chocolate. But those exact words don’t appear in the sentence. Here’s a better version:

Loving chocolate makes losing weight difficult for Linda. CORRECT

You could also rewrite the whole sentence to eliminate that indefinite “it”:

Linda’s love for chocolate makes losing weight difficult for her. CORRECT

Let’s summarize what you’ve learned today. Here are some quick guidelines:

  • If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.
  • It is = it’s
  • Its is possessive, with no apostrophe, like his

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Here’s one last question to test your understanding: When would you write this word?  

its’

Answer: NEVER. If you missed this question, go back and reread this post. Or make a little card to carry with you:

its

And that’s it for today!

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