As I was reminded today at the office, there is a lot of confusion out there — even among people I consider quite smart (who shall remain nameless…I’m not that kind of a blogger) — around the difference between its, it’s, and its’. Most of the trouble seems to stem from the fact that it, nearly unique among words in the English language, takes no apostrophe when forming the possessive. The possessive of it is its. It’s, on the other hand, is a contraction meaning “it is.” And its’ is just plain wrong.
Or is it? You know how I am. So, I tried to imagine a context in which its’ might be right. If you were talking about it as the word it, the plural would be its, though I doubt you would find very many occasions to use that non-possessive its unless they came up with a new, pronoun-based version of “no ifs, ands, or buts.” Its in that sense would logically become its’ in the possessive, but it’s even harder to imagine ever using that word. I suppose it falls within the realm of possibility, but somewhere way out on the extreme fringe.
I considered the Devo song “Whip It.” There must be several recorded versions of the song floating around out there if you include illegal bootlegs. (By the way, if Devo comes around on a revival concert tour, don’t go. I went to see them a couple years back — you know, irony, nostalgia — and they were just awful.) So, you could have a collection of “Whip Its” (not to be confused with a collection of whippets). But wait! Chicago Manual of Style forbids use of the possessive with a title within quotation marks. So, no “Whip Its'” (assuming we could even imagine a sentence where we’d want to use the possessive of a plural of a song title where the group is not even good anymore). Dead end.
But all is not lost, thanks to the It’s It. You know, the tasty ice cream treat. Well, maybe you don’t know. Anyway, the plural of It’s It ought to be It’s Its. (We will leave out the ® and the seemingly optional hyphen just to keep things from getting really messy. Never mind either that the It’s It website seems to use It’s It as both the singular and the plural, as if it were a deer or a fish or something.) This is something you would actually say: “We all went to Dolores Park and ate It’s Its. It was lovely.” They really are delicious.
Now for the jackpot — the possessive of the plural of the it: “The It’s Its’ flavors were vanilla, mint, and coffee.” Granted, that is an awkward sentence at best, but I’m pretty sure it constitutes an acceptable use of its’. So what if it’s capitalized and a registered trademark and sometimes hyphenated? To complete the thought, get the coffee flavor.
What’s not so clear is how you would make the singular It’s It possessive. Would it be It’s It’s or It’s Its? I side with the former, as in “The It’s It’s popularity will skyrocket once this blog post goes viral.” I mean, assuming you could in some parallel universe use the possessive with a song title, you wouldn’t say, “Whip Its lyrics are really profound,” would you? No, you’d say “Whip It’s lyrics…” You’d probably change the last part of the sentence, too, while you were at it.
My example above uses it’s twice in a row, once as a contraction and once as a possessive. I know what you’re wondering now: What is the plural of it’s? Could I have just said, “My example uses two it’ses in a row”? Or maybe it’sii? To show that I am not completely insane, I will say that by far the best choice in a case like this is to reword one’s sentence. I could maybe live with it’ses if you put a gun to my head, though.
Meanwhile, the example of Cousin It [sic] of Addams Family fame is irrelevant to the it discussion. I’m told by Wikipedia the name is Cousin Itt, the plural of which, if it were up to me, would be Cousins Itt. Another dead end, which in this case seems oddly appropriate.