Q: I can’t stand the use of “it’s” for “it has” in writing. When I see “it’s,” I read “it is” and then have to translate this to “it has.” Am I too picky?
A: There’s nothing wrong with using “it’s” as the contraction of “it is” or “it has,” whether in writing or in speech. One can easily tell from the context which sense is meant, and both uses are long established in standard English.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, says “it’s” has two meanings: “1. Contraction of it is. 2. Contraction of it has.” And Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says “its is the possessive form of it (The cat licked its paws) and it’s is the shortened form of it is (It’s raining again) or it has (It’s come).”
In fact, “it’s” has been a contraction of both “it is” and “it has” for hundreds of years, though “it’s” was once the usual form of the possessive adjective and “ ’tis” was the usual contraction of “it is.” Confusing, ’tisn’t it? Here’s the story.
In Old English (roughly 450 to 1150) and Middle English (about 1150 to 1450), the usual nominative or subject form of “it” was hit, hyt, etc. The usual genitive or possessive form (“its” or “of it”) was his, hys, etc. The nominative it was seen only occasionally in Old English, more often in Middle English.
Here’s an early example of the nominative hit in Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725: “hit wearð ealgearo, healærna mæst” (“it stood there ready, the noblest of halls”).
And here’s an example of the genitive his in an Anglo-Saxon herbal remedy: “Gedrinc his þonne on niht nistig þreo full fulle” (“Drink of it, after a night of fasting, three full cups”). From the Old English Herbarium, a 12th-century manuscript at the British Library (Cotton Vitellius C. iii).
(By the way, “he” was he in Old English, “she” was heo or hie, “his” was his or hys, and “her” was hire.)
Both “its” and “it’s” first came into use as possessive adjectives in early Modern English, probably because the older neuter genitive his was being confused with the masculine possessive his.
(We’re using the term “possessive adjective” here to describe a dependent genitive like “her” or “their,” and “possessive pronoun” to describe an independent genitive like “hers” or “theirs.”)
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “its” as a possessive adjective is from a late 16th-century translation of a collection of Latin anecdotes for clerics: “There stands a bedde, its death to tell.” From Certain Selected Histories for Christian Recreations (1577), by Ralph Robinson.
And the first OED citation for the apostrophized “it’s” used as a possessive is from the definition of spontaneamente in an Italian-English dictionary: “willingly, naturally, without compulsion, of himselfe, of his free will, for it’s owne sake.” From A Worlde of Wordes (1611), by John Florio.
Of the two versions of the possessive adjective—with and without the apostrophe—“it’s” was apparently the predominant spelling throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. (In fact, “her’s,” “our’s,” “their’s,” and “your’s” were also possessives in early Modern English.)
The dictionary cites a half-dozen examples of the possessive “it’s,” including one from a Nov. 8, 1800, letter by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra. We’ve expanded the citation, which describes the reaction of Austen’s neighbors, the Harwoods, on learning that their son Earle, a marine lieutenant, had accidentally shot himself in the thigh:
“One most material comfort however they have; the assurance of it’s being really an accidental wound, which is not only positively declared by Earle himself, but is likewise testified by the particular direction of the bullet. Such a wound could not have been received in a duel.”
We’ll add this earlier one from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, believed written in the late 1590s and first published in the 1623 Folio: “As milde and gentle as the Cradle‑babe, / Dying with mothers dugge betweene it’s lips.”
As Merriam-Webster explains, “the unapostrophized its was in competition with it’s from the beginning and began to rise to dominance in the mid 18th century.” M-W cites several language authorities to show how the usage evolved.
In A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), Robert Lowth gave “its” as the possessive form of “it.” But in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), George Campbell gave “it’s.” In Reflections on the English Language (1770), Robert Baker preferred “it’s,” then switched to “its” in the 1779 edition. And in English Grammar (1794), Lindley Murray endorsed its.
As for the “it is” contractions, “ ’tis” appeared about a century before “it’s,” according to citations in the OED.
This is Oxford’s earliest example of “ ’tis” is written without an apostrophe (for the missing “i” in “it”): “Alas, tys pety yt schwld be þus” (“Alas, ’tis a pity it should be thus”). From Mankind, an anonymous morality play written around 1475.
The dictionary’s earliest example with an apostrophe is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, first published in the 1623 Folio but believed to have been performed in 1606: “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twer well, It were done quickly.”
Meanwhile, “it’s” had emerged as a competing contraction. This is Oxford’s first example: “And ambition is a priuie [private] poison, It’s also a pestilens.” From Rewarde of Wickednesse, a 1574 poem by Richard Robinson.
At first, the competition of “ ’tis” and “it’s” was pretty one-sided. A comparison using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, suggests that “ ’tis” was the usual contraction of “it is” from the mid-16th century to the mid-19th.
In fact, the early dominance of “ ’tis” was even greater than the comparison shows, since the Ngram results include the use of “it’s” as a possessive adjective as well as a contraction of “it has” and “it is.”
Language authorities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries indicated a preference for “ ’tis.” Campbell, for instance, complains in The Philosophy of Rhetoric about what he considers the misuse of “it’s, the genitive of the pronoun it, for ’tis, a contraction of it is.”
And both Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1775) and Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) include entries for “ ’tis” (but not “it’s”) as a contraction of “it is.”
Getting back to your complaint about the use of “it’s” as a contraction of “it has,” the earliest example we’ve seen for the usage is from the 1623 Folio of King Lear.
In addition to the contraction “it’s” for “it has,” Shakespeare used “it” twice by itself as a possessive: “the Hedge-Sparrow fed the Cuckoo so long, that it’s had it head bit off by it young.”