Possessive determiners constitute a sub-class of determiners which modify a noun by attributing possession (or other sense of belonging) to someone or something. They are also known as possessive adjectives, although the latter term is sometimes used with a wider meaning.
Examples in English include possessive forms of the personal pronouns, namely: my, your, his, her, its, our and their, but excluding those forms such as mine, yours, hers, ours, and theirs that are used as possessive pronouns but not as determiners. Possessive determiners may also be taken to include possessive forms made from nouns, from other pronouns and from noun phrases, such as John's, the girl's, somebody's, the king of Spain's, when used to modify a following noun.
In many languages, possessive determiners are subject to agreement with the noun they modify, as in the French mon, ma, mes, respectively the masculine singular, feminine singular and plural forms corresponding to the English my.
Comparison with determiners
Possessive determiners, as used in English and some other languages, imply the definite article. For example, my car implies the car that belongs to me/is used by me. (However, "This is the car I have" implies that it is the only car you have, whereas "This is my car" does not imply that to the same extent. When applied to relatives other than parents or spouse, there is no implication of uniqueness – "my brother" can mean equally well "one of my brothers" as "the one brother I have".) It is not correct to precede possessives with an article (*the my car) or (in today's English) other definite determiner such as a demonstrative (*this my car), although they can combine with quantifiers in the same ways that the can (all my cars, my three cars, etc.; see English determiners). This is not the case in all languages; for example in Italian the possessive is usually preceded by another determiner such as an article, as in la mia macchina ("my car", literally "the my car").
While some classify the words my, your, etc. as possessive adjectives, others, due to the differences noted above, do not consider them adjectives – at least, not in English – and prefer possessive determiners. In some other languages the equivalent parts of speech behave more like true adjectives, however.
The words my, your, etc. are sometimes classified, along with mine, yours etc., as possessive pronouns or genitive pronouns, since they are the possessive (or genitive) forms of the ordinary personal pronouns I, you etc. However, unlike most other pronouns, they do not behave grammatically as stand-alone nouns, but instead qualify another noun – as in my book (contrasted with that's mine, for example, where mine substitutes for a complete noun phrase such as my book). For this reason, other authors restrict the term "possessive pronoun" to the group of words mine, yours etc. that substitute directly for a noun or noun phrase.
Some authors who classify both sets of words as "possessive pronouns" or "genitive pronouns" apply the terms dependent/independent or weak/strong to refer, respectively, to my, your, etc. and mine, yours, etc. For example, under this scheme, my is termed a dependent possessive pronoun and mine an independent possessive pronoun.
Possessive determiners in English
The basic pronominal possessive determiners in modern English are my, your, his, her, its, our, their and whose (as in Whose coat is this? and the man whose car was stolen). As noted above, they indicate definiteness, like the definite article the. Archaic forms include thy and mine/thine (for my/thy before a vowel). For details, see English personal pronouns.
Other possessive determiners (although they may not always be classed as such, though they play the same role in syntax) are the words and phrases formed by attaching the clitic -'s (or sometimes just an apostrophe after -s) to other pronouns, to nouns and to noun phrases (sometimes called determiner phrases). Examples include Jane's, heaven's, the boy's, Jesus', the soldiers', those men's, the king of England's, one's, somebody's.
Though in English the possessive determiners indicate definiteness, in other languages the definiteness needs to be added separately for grammatical correctness.
In some Romance languages such as French and Italian, the gender of the possessive determiners agrees with the thing(s) owned, not with the owner. French, for example, in the singular, uses son for masculine nouns and also for feminine noun phrases starting with a vowel, sa elsewhere; compare Il a perdu son chapeau ("He lost his hat") with Elle a perdu son chapeau ("She lost her hat"). In this respect the possessive determiners in these languages resemble ordinary adjectives. French also correlates possessive determiners to both the plurality of the possessor and possessee, as in notre voiture (our car) and nos voitures (our cars). In Spanish, however, possessive determiners do not change for gender, e.g. mi hijo y mi hija ("my son and my daughter"), but do change for plurality of the possessee, e.g. Mi esposa tiene mis gafas ("My wife has my glasses"). Spanish possessive pronouns do agree with gender and plurality of the possessee, e.g. Esas niñas son nuestras. Ese bolígrafo es nuestro. ("Those girls are ours. That pen is ours.").
In Italian, constructions such as il tuo libro nero ("the your book black ", rendered in English as "your black book") and quel tuo libro nero ("that your book black", rendered in English as "that black book of yours") are grammatically correct. In Italian, the possessive determiners behave in almost every respect like adjectives.
Some Germanic languages, such as English and Dutch, use different pronouns depending on the owner. English has the (uninflected) words his and her; Dutch uses the (uninflected) zijn and haar. Other Germanic languages, such as German and several Dutch dialects including Limburgish and Brabantian, additionally use different forms depending on the grammatical gender of the object owned. German has sein (with inflected forms like seine) for masculine and ihr (with inflected forms like ihre) for feminine possessors; in German, the "hat" sentences above would be Er hat seinen Hut verloren (He lost his hat) and Sie hat ihren Hut verloren (She lost her hat) respectively. Brabantian also inflects zijn (his) and haar (her) according to the grammatical gender and number of the thing(s) owned.
Some languages have no distinctive possessive determiners, and express possession by declining personal pronouns in the genitive or possessive case, or by using possessive suffixes or particles. In Japanese, for example, boku no (a word for I coupled with the genitive particle no), is used for my or mine. In Mandarin Chinese, the possessive determiner and possessive pronoun take the same form as each other: the form associated with wǒ ("I") is wǒ de ("my", "mine"), where de is the possessive particle.
Some languages use the same word for both the possessive determiner and the matching possessive pronoun. For example, in Finnish meidän can mean either our or ours.
On the other hand, some Micronesian languages such as Pohnpeian have a large number of possessive classifiers that reflect both the possessor and the possessum: nah pwihk means "his (live) pig;" ah pwihk means "his (butchered) pig;" and kene pwihk means "pork; his pig (to eat)." As a further example, tehnweren ohlo war (POSSESSIVECLASS:HONORIFIC-CANOE-n that-man canoe) means "that man's canoe," referring to a person of high status.
For possessive determiners as elsewhere, the genitive does not always indicate strict possession, but rather a general sense of belonging or close identification with. Consider the following examples:
- my mother or my people
- Here, a person does not own his or her mother, but rather has a close relationship with her. The same applies to my people, which means people I am closely associated with or people I identify with.
- his train (as in "If Bob doesn't get to the station in ten minutes he's going to miss his train")
- Here, Bob most likely does not own the train and instead his train means the train Bob plans to travel on.
- my CD (as in "The kids are enjoying my CD")
- my CD could refer to a CD that I own, a CD owned by someone else but with music that I recorded as an artist, a CD that I have just given to someone here as a gift, or one with some other relation to me that would be identifiable in the context.
Possessive determiners commonly have similar forms to personal pronouns. In addition, they have corresponding possessive pronouns, which are also phonetically similar. The following chart shows the English, German, and French personal pronouns, possessive determiners and possessive pronouns.
|Singular||1st||me||my||mine||mich||mein, meine, meiner, meines, meinem, meinen||meiner, meine, mein(e)s, meinen, meinem||me||mon, ma, mes||le mien, la mienne, les miens, les miennes|
|2nd||dich||dein, deine, deiner, deines, deinem, deinen||deiner, deine, dein(e)s, deinen, deinem||te||ton, ta, tes||le tien, la tienne, les tiens, les tiennes|
|3rd||masc.||him||his||his||ihn||sein, seine, seiner, seines, seinem, seinen||seiner, seine, sein(e)s, seinen, seinem||lui||son, sa, ses||le sien, la sienne, les siens, les siennes|
|fem.||her||her||hers||sie||ihr, ihre, ihrer, ihres, ihrem, ihren||ihrer, ihre, ihr(e)s, ihren, ihrem|
|neut.||it||its||(its)||es||sein, seine, seiner, seines, seinem, seinen||seiner, seine, sein(e)s, seinen, seinem|
|Plural||1st||us||our||ours||uns||unser, unsere, unserer, unseres, unserem, unseren||unserer, unsere, unser(e)s, unseren, unserem||nous||notre, nos||le nôtre, la nôtre, les nôtres|
|2nd||euch||euer, euere, euerer, eueres, euerem, eueren||eurer, eure, eur(e)s, euren, eurem||vous||votre, vos||le vôtre, la vôtre, les vôtres|
|3rd||them||their||theirs||sie||ihr, ihre, ihrer, ihres, ihrem, ihren||ihrer, ihre, ihr(e)s, ihren, ihrem||leur||leur, leurs||le leur, la leur, les leurs|
|Singular & Plural||2nd||you||your||yours||Sie *||Ihr, Ihre, Ihrer, Ihres, Ihrem, Ihren *||Ihrer, Ihre, Ihr(e)s, Ihren, Ihrem *|
- * These forms are grammatically 3rd person plural, but refer to a naturally 2nd person.
- Biber et al. (1999), pp. 270–72
- Jesperson (1949), pp. 399–405
- Biber et al. 1999, pp. 340–42
- All about grammar, p. 69, Rosemary Allen, 2007
- Easy French step-by-step, p. 210, Myrna Bell Rochester, McGraw Hill Professional, 2008
- Payne and Huddleston 2002, p. 426
- Quirk et al. (1985) pp. 361–62
- In Norwegian bokmål written form, the phrase could alternatively be written as min bok due to bokmål's Danish heritage.
- Rehg, Kenneth L.; Sohl, Damian G. (1981). Ponapean Reference Grammar. PALI language texts: Micronesia. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 182–4, 188, 192. ISBN 0-8248-0718-9. Retrieved 2012-01-08.
- See canoonet: Possessivpronomen und Possessivartikel
- Biber, Douglas, et al. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken English. Harlow, Essex: Longman. ISBN 0-582-23725-4.
- Jespersen, Otto. (1949) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Part 2 (Syntax, vol. 1). Copenhagen: Munksgaard; London: George Allen and Unwin.
- Payne, John, and Rodney Huddleston. (2002) "Nouns and Noun Phrases." Chap. 5 of Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
- Quirk, Randolph, et al. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow, Essex: Longman. ISBN 0-582-51734-6.