#amwriting: genitives and possessives: who’s, whose, its, it’s

A casual remark in the comments on Monday’s post on two commonly misused pronouns, ‘that’ and ‘which,’ brought up this subject–the proper use of possessives and genitives. On the surface, it seems simple, but it can be complicated, so we are going to revisit a post from 2016 on this subject.

Most people understand that apostrophes can denote possession (and I’m not talking demonic here), or they can indicate a contraction.

Things to remember:

  1. Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or, less commonly, “who has.”
  2. Whose is the possessive of “who” or, somewhat controversially, “which.”
  3. Their(s) is the possessive of “they.” (They’re proud to own it, it’s theirs, and it’s not there.)
  4. Its is the possessive of “it,” and “it’s” is a contraction of it is. Note that for both they and it, there is no apostrophe in the possessive form. We will get to that later.

Quote from grammar-quizzes.com:

‘Whose’ replaces a genitive personal or inanimate noun in a relative clause. While some people may object to the usage of ‘whose’ with an inanimate noun, grammarians approve of it and cite its usage by highly esteemed writers.” (end quoted text)

What does that slightly complicated explanation really mean?

Let’s look at some definitions:

Genitive: The genitive case is the grammatically correct term predominantly used for showing possession. Nowadays, words falling into that category are more frequently referred to as possessive, which is simpler. With nouns, it is usually created by adding an apostrophe followed by an “s”: ’s to the word or by preceding it with the word: of.

  • John’s blue eyes.
  • The rim of the cup.
  • It is the cat’s possession, a possession of the cat, or a possession owned by the cat. (Universal fact: cats own everything.)

However, the genitive case is not always about possession and, for this reason, the word genitive won’t completely fall out of favor in the English language. Grammar-Monster.com says:

  • Dan’s bike (No one would argue this is the genitive case and the possessive case. It is the bike of Dan. It is about possession.)
  • Children’s songs (This is not about possession. It’s about songs for children. For this reason, some argue this is the genitive case and not the possessive case.)
  • Constable’s paintings (This is not about possession. It’s about paintings by Constable. Some would argue this is the genitive case and not the possessive case.) (end quoted text)

Grammar-Monster also says:

“Possessive adjectives and possessive personal pronouns are also forms of the genitive case.” Examples:

  • our carpet (our – a genitive form of we)
  • Can I use yours? (yours – a genitive form of you) (end quoted text)


When referring to living beings, whose denotes possession and who’s is a contraction that refers to existencewho is.

So now we have some idea of “whose” versus “who’s.” But what about “It?”

Dealing with possession by the inanimate—we don’t need an exorcist, although a good maid service could probably help my office. But in this case, we are referencing something owned by the inanimate:

  • The texture of the wall —it’s (It is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its (The wall’s surface.)

Its… it’s… which is what and when to use it?

The trouble here can be found in the apostrophe. In probably 99% of English words an apostrophe indicates possession, but it also indicates a contraction. Because both it and they are frequently part of contracted words, the choice was made by linguists to eliminate the apostrophe in the possessive form, in the (vain) hope of ending confusion.

  1. It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  2. Its denotes possession: It owns it.

Contractions (e.g., let’s, don’t, couldn’t, it’s, she’s) have a bad reputation in educational and formal writing. Many argue that they have no place at all in formal writing. If you are writing a thesis, you should observe your publisher’s or instructor’s requirements.

However, in writing fiction, avoiding contractions makes your writing appear stilted and hyper-formal. If you are serious about the craft, you will learn the exceptions to the rules when it comes to apostrophes, and not accidentally mingle possessives in with your contractions.

credits and attributions:

The majority of this article first appeared on Life in the Realm of Fantasy under the title, genitives and possessives: when good apostrophes go bad, © April 04, 2016 by Connie J. Jasperson.

Grammar Quizzes by Julie Sevastopoulos is licensed for use under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International. GrammarQuizzes.Com, Genitive Noun Forms, http://www.grammar-quizzes.com/agr_possessives.html,  accessed August-08-2017

GrammarMonster.com, What Is the Genitive Case? http://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/genitive_case.htm, accessed August-08-2017


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14 responses to “#amwriting: genitives and possessives: who’s, whose, its, it’s

  1. Stephen Swartz

    You’re walking a fine line between Grammar Police and English Professor!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great reminders
    Now I have a question. If I was going to send a Christmas card to the Johnson family, would it be correct saying, “Every year at Christmas I send a card to the ‘Johnsons’ or ‘Johnsons.” I always get confused on which way it should be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question, Chuck! Ask yourself, are you sending to them as a group or to their home? In my family, a flock of Johnsons is plural, but their home is their possession. So, it should be the Johnsons, as a group.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on TheKingsKidChronicles and commented:
    Well, now that’s cleared up. Thank you so much for this post. Though I seldom struggle with this issue, it does occasionally pop up, and I have read many books that had these used incorrectly. Reblogged from https://conniejjasperson.com


  4. David P. Cantrell

    I don’t have the skill to make a witty comment, so I’ll just say, “well done.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Nesie's Place and commented:
    Good, easy tips to remember for ‘those’ moments when nothing looks right and your inner spellchecker goes for coffee! 😉👍


  6. LOL! “Universal fact: cats own everything.” Truth!