It’s = “it is” or “it has”: how to tell the difference

The short form of it is is it’s. But it’s can also mean it has.

Likewise, he’s can mean either he is or he has.

The problem is this: How do we know whether the writer means it is or it has, or he is or he has?

The trick is to look at what follows the ’s:

When followed by an adjective or adverb ’s = is.

adjectives = tall, young, hungry
adverbs = here, there, etc.

  • She’s tired today. (she’s = she is)
  • He’s younger than me. (he’s = he is)
  • It’s here. (it’s = it is)

When followed by an article + noun ’s = is.

article + noun = a singer, a fireman, a lawyer, the boss, etc.

  • He’s an actor at the theatre. (he’s = he is)
  • David’s a bus driver. (David’s = David is)

When followed by an -ing verb ’s = is.

-ing verb = walking, eating, speaking, etc.

  • He’s eating a cake. (he’s = he is)
  • That house is very old and it’s falling down. (it’s = it is)

So far so good, right? But now the awkward one.

When followed by a past participle ’s = has OR is.

This means that when ’s comes before a past participle (been, done, gone, made, etc.), we have to understand the meaning from the context of the whole sentence. Sometimes this is easy, other times more difficult:

  • It’s been 10 years since I saw her. (it’s = it has)
  • Coco-Cola is the world’s most popular soft drink. It’s drunk everywhere. (it’s = it is)
  • Peter’s drunk again. (Peter’s = Peter is)
  • The beer has gone. Peter’s drunk it. (Peter’s = Peter has)

Of course, we also use ’s to show possession (John’s telephone, Mary’s iPad), but that’s a story for another post.

Too much text for your attention span? Here’s the explanation in an infographic – send it to your friends!

Apostrophe s = is or has infographic

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. See all posts by Stuart

4 Comments

  1. suthipong - July 18, 2013, 9:07 am Reply

    It’s a useful explaination.

  2. Bushra - July 27, 2013, 7:15 pm Reply

    “It’s been 10 years since I saw her. (it’s = it is)” isn’t correct , it should be it has been 10 years (it’s = it has)
    it is been is never correct

    • Stuart Cook - July 28, 2013, 10:35 am Reply

      Sorry about that typo, Bushra. It has been corrected in the article now.

  3. Anonymous - November 24, 2016, 6:59 am Reply

    But the use the contraction he’s for he has, and it’s for it has is more for spoken than written English. We need to be careful to point that out to students.

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