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Its or Their: When to Use Each Possessive Pronoun

Pronouns are a valuable part of speech to assign ownership and convey additional information in a sentence. There are the obvious, gender-specific pronouns like “his” and “hers,” but referencing things in the third person can get a little confusing. For example, when should “its” or “their” be used?

“Its” is a singular third-person pronoun that we most often use to assign ownership to objects instead of people. “Their” is a plural third-person pronoun we use to assign ownership to one or more humans, specifically in cases where you might not know much about them.

As with other areas of grammar, there are some interesting exceptions to these rules as well. In the following sections, we will unpack why grammarians classify these parts of speech the way they do, how they function, and some common areas of confusion surrounding them.

Its or Their Grammar: Third-Person Perspective

Both “its” and “their” are third-person pronouns, as opposed to first- or even second-person pronouns. These are expressions of perspective that help identify who the communicator is referring to in their sentence. Here is a quick list to show the various expressions:

First-person When the speaker refers to themself directlyI, me, my, mine We, us, our, ours
Second-person When the speaker refers to the addresseeYou, your, yoursYou, your, yours
Third-personWhen the speaker refers to a person other than themself or the addresseeHe, him, his, she, her, hers, it, itsThey, them, their, theirs

What Is the Difference Between “Its” and “Their”?

As we can see from this table, the most notable difference between “its” and “their” is that “its” is a singular third-person pronoun, while “their” is a plural third-person pronoun. This means we would use “its” concerning one person or thing, and we’d use “their” with a group of people or things.

As pronouns, they must agree in number and gender with their antecedent, meaning the noun that comes before them and which they refer to.

Personal pronouns are a type of definite pronoun because they refer to something specific. For first-person pronouns, there need not be any other context to the pronoun someone uses since we know that the communicator refers to themself and no one else (source).

However, third-person pronouns can sometimes function as indefinite pronouns combined with indefinite pronouns like “anyone” (source).

Its vs. Their as Possessive Pronouns

In addition to “its” and “their” functioning as third-person pronouns, they are also both possessive pronouns. Both “its” and “their” are neuter pronouns as well, meaning they do not indicate gender, so we’ll examine the function of neuter possessive pronouns next.

What Are Possessive Pronouns?

Pronouns are a part of speech we use in place of a noun, sometimes to be specific, and, other times, to avoid repetition in a sentence. Possessive pronouns are a specialized category of pronouns that, as you can tell by their name, show ownership (source).

In the sentence “The boy picked up the boy’s book,” we do not know whether the first reference of “the boy” is the same as the second and, even if it is, it is clumsy wording to have the same phrase appear twice in a sentence.

A better way of wording this example would be to say, “The boy picked up his book,” if the book belongs to him, or “The boy picked up the book belonging to the other boy” if it belonged to someone else.

Assigning Ownership to “It”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “its” as “of or relating to it or itself especially as possessor, agent, or object of an action.”

For objects, this comes naturally. For example, we can correctly refer to a flower and its petals. For animals, though their genders may be apparent, you would still be correct to refer to an animal as “it” regardless of gender.

However, when it comes to humans, we consider it rude and a slight to refer to one another as an “it,” as if you are intentionally dehumanizing them.

For example, we cannot say, “They asked the girl to pick up its shoes.” Instead, we should say that “They asked the girl to pick up her shoes.” We know to use a female third-person possessive pronoun, i.e., “her,” in this instance, since the sentence identified the subject as a girl.

As with all rules in grammar, though, there are some cases where we can use “its” in relation to people. For example, we would be correct in saying, “Science took a big leap forward when mankind took its first steps on the moon.”

In this example, we use “its” to assign ownership of the steps to mankind. Though “mankind” appears to be plural, it is an uncountable noun that only operates in the singular form (source). This demonstrates that “its” is not entirely exclusive to inanimate objects since we can also use it with uncountable nouns.

“Their” as a Plural Third-Person Possessive Pronoun

As we’ve covered already, the major difference between these two phrases is that “its” is the singular form and “their” is the plural form, while both are third-person possessive forms. Generally, the subject must be plural to agree with the plural possessive pronoun “their.”

The Smiths decided it was time to trade in their car.

The subject of this sentence is the Smith family as a collective group. We do not know exactly how many people this is and who it comprises, but we know “Smiths” is a plural proper noun with an -s at the end.

There is a way for us to change this example to make “its” correct, though, by using a mass noun or an abstract noun as the antecedent. Though a group contains many members, we still use a singular form to refer to one whole group (source).

To use this in an example, we could say, “The company’s design department needed to upgrade its printer.” A department implies that it encompasses several people; however, they’re grouped as one body when we talk about their need for a new printer.

For more on the plural forms of “it,” such as “they,” “them,” and “their,” make sure you read “What Is the Plural Form of It?

Its vs. Their as Determiners

Possessive pronouns also function as determiners. A determiner helps us further identify something about the noun that it modifies. A determiner could indicate that a noun is vague and speaking in general terms or direct and specific (source).

We’ll use determiners such as articles and third-person possessive pronouns, using “flower” as the subject to demonstrate how these determiners function.

Definite and Indefinite Articles

First, let’s look at definite and indefinite articles:

  • He picked a flower on his way to see her.
  • The flower smelled wonderful.

“A” is an indefinite article, not specifying which one. In contrast, the determiner and definite article “the” has taken us from the field of flowers, where the man was choosing a flower, to now speaking specifically about this one picked flower.

Third-Person Possessive Pronouns as Determiners

In this next example, while the sentiment may be true of all flowers, this sentence is referring to this one individual flower in particular.

  • She found a vase to put her flower in.

Now that we’ve presented the flower, we use the determiner “her” to show personal ownership. This sentence is partly vague since we have not identified this person’s name; all we can glean from this is that she is a woman, and she now owns a flower.

After a week, the flower lost its petals. The rest of the flowers in the field still had all of their petals, though.

This final example is most important to us since it uses both “its” and “their” as determiners. In the first sentence, the flower is still the subject; however, we have assigned ownership of the petals to the flower, which we show by calling them “its petals.”

In contrast, the second part of the example takes us back to the multiple flowers of the field. This required us to assign ownership to multiple flowers, so we used the plural possessive pronoun “their” as a determiner.

Common Spelling Errors

“Its” and “their” have a handful of variations, both in spelling and in associated grammar, which can lead to errors. We will briefly look at some of the common errors to help you make sure you are using the correct form. 

Its or It’s?

One of the most common grammatical errors is using an apostrophe for the possessive form of “it” or leaving the apostrophe out when referring to the contraction “it is.” 

To avoid such an error, it will help to remember that indefinite pronouns use apostrophes for the possessive case, while definite pronouns like “it” do not (source).

On the other hand, if you are contracting the term “it is” or “it has,” then you use an apostrophe, resulting in “it’s,” as in “It’s a fine day for going for a walk.” 

For information on how to use the possessive form with indefinite pronouns, make  sure you read our article “Everyone’s or Everyones: Understanding and Using the Correct Term.”

Their and Theirs

Image by Dorota Kudyba via Pixabay

“Theirs” is quite similar to “their,” except that it does not need a noun to follow it. Grammarians group the pronoun “theirs” alongside pronouns such as “ours,” “yours,” or “mine” as independent possessive pronouns or absolute possessive pronouns. 

In contrast, “their” functions as a determiner describing the noun it precedes.

  • That dog is theirs.
  • That is their dog.

“That dog is theirs” is a complete sentence indicating that the dog belongs to an unspecified “them,” whoever they might be.

There and They’re

Homonyms can be difficult to differentiate and, much like “its” or “it’s,” it would be worthwhile clarifying which of these is relevant to our specific situation.

“There” can function as an adverb, a pronoun, or a noun. It refers to a specific place, differing from “here.” To use it correctly, you would need to refer to a location, like “Look over there.”

“They’re” is the contracted form of the phrase “they are,” combining the subjective case neuter pronoun “they” with the be-verb “are.” An example of this would be “The sports team won, and now they’re going to the finals.”

Its or Their for an Organization

Image by Gerd Altman via Pixabay

You may still have some specific questions about when to use “its” or “their” since it may not always be clear if the subject is plural or not.

Is a Company Their or Its?

We usually refer to a company or organization as a singular entity, and we can assign ownership to them as one entity, though numerous individuals might make up a company. 

  • Ford Motors has its manufacturing plants all around the world.

We can even use “its” in reference to a department within a company:

  • The accounting department decided it needed its own fridge.

Importantly, we’ve chosen to refer to the group collectively by the department, which took the singular possessive pronoun. However, if we changed the wording to refer to the plural noun accountants, we’d need to change to the plural possessive pronoun “their.”

  • The accountants decided they needed their own fridge.

Is a Country Their or Its?

This same logic applies to countries, too. So long as we’re speaking about the country as a corporate whole, we can use a singular pronoun.

  • Australia is known for its dangerous wildlife.

The moment we speak about nationality in the plural, we need to swap over to “their.”

  • Germans are renowned for their attention to detail.

Final Thoughts

Both “its” and “their” function as determiners, specifying to whom something belongs. Both must agree in number and neuter gender with their antecedent.

“Its” is a third-person neuter pronoun that we use to express possession of a thing by a singular noun. In contrast, “their” is a third-person pronoun we use to assign ownership to a group of people.