Possessives

Introduction

Generally speaking, possessives are words that show a certain relationship with other words. More specifically, possessives can be nouns, pronouns or adjectives. When a noun becomes a possessive, it functions as an adjective or a determiner. While the classic function of possessives is to show possession or ownership, this is not always the case. Many times, the possessive form serves for various kinds of relationships between two nouns:

Examples:

  • My bicycle is red.
  • My school is far away.
  • My mother bakes delicious cakes.

In the sentences above, the same possessive marker (the determiner “my”) is used, but with different meanings. In the first sentence, the possessive indeed signifies ownership, i.e. the bicycle belongs to the speaker. In the second sentence, the possessive signifies that the speaker goes to this school (but does not own it). In the third sentence, the possessive is used to denote the familial relationship between the speaker and another person (his mother).

How to form the possessive

The most common form of possessives is made by adding 's to a noun:

Examples:

  • Jane’s book.
  • The sailor’s hat.
  • The dog’s tail.
  • The day’s end.

For plural nouns that end in s, we should only add an apostrophe. For nouns and names that end in s in their singular form, ’s will be added:

Examples:

  • The ducks' pond.
  • The workers' party.
  • The boys' club.
  • Jones’s father.
  • The bus’s seats.

Possessive forms of personal pronouns

However, not all words can become possessives by being added 's' or an apostrophe. Personal pronouns are a word family that has special possessive forms:

  • My father.
  • Your book.
  • Her birthday.
  • His house.
  • Its beak.
  • Our game.
  • Their country.

The following list shows how to convert personal possessive determiners to personal pronouns:

My → Mine

Your → Yours

Her → Hers

His → His

Our → Ours

Their → Theirs

Examples:

  • My dog is small → The small dog is mine
  • This is your book → This book is yours
  • Tomorrow is her birthday → Yesterday it was hers

Another pronoun that gets a special possessive is the interrogative “who” in question sentences, as well as in dependent clauses, when it is used to denote possession:

  • Whose car is this?
  • The man whose was stolen.

How to Avoid Common Mistakes

Possessives can be a bit confusing, as many possessive forms look and sound alike. Here are some guidelines to avoiding common mistakes:

1. Using possessive pronouns instead of possessive determiners

As mentioned, personal pronouns have two different possessive forms: possessive determiners and possessive pronouns. I becomes both my and mine. But how do we know which to use and when? We said before that possessives usually behave like adjectives, and the same is true to personal possessive determiners. As a rule of thumb, a personal possessive determiner will always be followed by a noun. In contrast, possessive pronouns are not followed by a noun:

Yours house is bigger than my.

Your house is bigger than mine.

2. Do not confuse possessives with contractions!

Contraction is a word that has been reduced to one letter or more, and is attached to another word. English has many of them in common use. In daily speech, the verbs “is” and “has” are reduced to ‘s, while the verb “are” can be shortened to ‘re. This creates many common combinations that look and sound all too similar to possessives:

It + is = it’s

He + is / he + has = he’s

They + are = they’re

Who + is = who’s

It is important to avoid using these combinations instead of possessives:

I ate an apple. It's taste was wonderful.

My friend showed me he's new watch.

John’s parents are painting they're house.

This is the actress who's movie we saw yesterday.

I ate an apple. Its taste was wonderful.

My friend showed me his new watch.

John’s parents are painting their house.

This is the actress whose movie we saw yesterday.

That’s all for now. Be sure to practice possessives and use them correctly, but take it easy and don’t let it possess you!