Correct Uses of Possessive Determiners

DeterminersOpens in new window are words that precede head nouns in a noun phrase. In this entry, we focus on Possessive Determiners.

Possessive determiners are a sub-class of determiners which appear before head nouns to indicate possession.

A full list of these determiners is shown below.

Also listed is a set of words, possessive pronounsOpens in new window that English language learners often confuse with possessive determiners.

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Possessive DeterminersPossessive Pronouns

Although possessive determiners and possessive pronounsOpens in new window are very similar in appearance, they are classified as two different syntactic categories on the basis of the environments in which they can occur.

The determiners occur only in noun phrases preceding head nouns, while the pronouns occur only by themselves to mark things that have already been mentioned, as the sentences in 1) show.

      • He told my father.
      • He told mine father.
      • That coat is Lisa’s and this one is mine.
      • That coat is Lisa’s and this one is my.

Sentence 1b) is ungrammatical because a possessive pronoun (mine) is being used to modify a head noun (father), for which the equivalent determiner (my ) is necessary, as 1a) demonstrates.

The sentence in 1d) is ungrammatical because a possessive determiner (my ) is being used where a possessive pronoun (mine) is required. Substituting the pronoun form results in the grammatical sentence shown in 1c).

Nouns as Possessive Determiners

An alternative way to indicate possession in English is by inflecting a noun to turn it into a possessive determiner. Most nouns are made possessive by adding an apostrophe + s (e.g., Liam’s, the teacher’s), while nouns ending in s are inflected by adding just an apostrophe.

These possessive constructions express the idea that the head noun belongs to or is associated with the noun that has the –’s ending. Most grammarians prefer to call this a genitive construction.

Like the possessive determiner, it can be followed by one or more postdeterminers as 2b) and 2c) illustrate.

      • Kim’s coat.
      • Liam’s five brothers.
      • John’s last five attempts.

The meaning of these inflected nouns can also be expressed by an of- phrase. The two constructions in 3) mean the same thing. Given this synonymy, the question arises: Are there any reasons for preferring one over the other?

      • The committee’s decision
      • The decision of the committee

In fact, several factors influence native speakers’ choice of one or the other construction. In one case only an of- phrase can be selected. In other cases, both constructions are possible, but certain factors inherent to the noun phrase tend to bias the choice toward one of the two possibilities.

Noun phrasesOpens in new window that refer to humans and, to a lesser extent, animals tend to appear in the inflected noun form, as in 4) and 5). The choice is not always automatic, but there is a definite bias toward this form with these types of NPs.

      • Felicia’s shiny black hair (preferred)
      • The shiny black hair of Felicia (not preferred)
      • The tiger’s paw (preferred)
      • The paw of the tiger (not preferred)

With NPs that refer to months and geographical locations, there seems to be little or no bias toward one possessive form over the other, as illustrated in 6) and 7).

      • December’s storms
      • The storms of December
      • London’s pubs
      • The pubs of London

Noun phrasesOpens in new window that refer to inanimate entities or objects will usually appear in an of- phrase construction, as illustrated in 8) and 9).

Again, this is not a fixed rules regarding these NPs, but it reflects a clear tendency among native speakers.

      • The roof of the house (preferred)
      • The house’s roof (not preferred)
      • The hem of your skirt (preferred)
      • Your skirt’s hem (not preferred or ungrammatical)
  1. A noun phrase with a possessive determiner that refers to a human (e.g., his coat, your arm) usually cannot be replaced with an of + pronoun pattern, as illustrated in 10).

      • His nose (preferred)
      • The nose of him (not preferred)
  2. There are, however, some instances in which the of + pronoun pattern will be preferred, as in 11). If the speaker or writer wants her in the bracketed NP to be understood as the subject of the portrait, then (11a) will be selected.

    Although 11b) is grammatical, it is also ambiguous in this regard. Her could refer to either the artist or the subject of the portrait.

      • [The only portrait of her] is in the National Gallery. (preferred)
      • [Her only portrait] is in the National Gallery. (not preferred)
  3. Finally, there appears to be a tendency for relatively short noun phrases to have the inflected noun form, as in 12a) and relatively long noun phrases to have the of- phrase form, as in 12b).

      • [The designer’s creations] were on display.
      • [The creations of a relatively young designer from Italy] were on display. (preferred)
      • [A relatively young designer from Italy’s creations] were on display. (not preferred)

The latter choice seems to reflect the information-structuring principle referred to as END WEIGHT, which states that long phrases should be put at the end of a phrase, clause, or sentence, (in this case after a head noun). Apparently, native speakers feel that longer, more complex modifiers should appear after the head noun rather than before it.

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  • References
    • The Teacher's Grammar of English with Answers: A Course Book and Reference Guide Possessive Determiners (Pg 200-202) By Ron Cowan.

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