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Concourse 2

The possessive in English


Before you follow this guide, you may like to look at the guide to pronouns so that some basic concepts are clear to you.


Five sorts of possessives

The possessive in English comes in five flavours.
Your task is to complete the tables.  Do that in your head or on a piece of paper and then click on the tables for the answers and a few comments.

1. Possessive adjectives

These are a form of determiner.  For example:
    It is his car
Now try to complete all the rows in the table with similar determiners.

possessive adjectives

2. Possessive pronouns

These stand for the noun.  For example:
    That is hers
Now try to complete all the rows in the table with similar pronouns.

possessive pronouns 1 

3. Adding an apostrophe

This is known as the genitive 's in English.  For example:
    Peter's house
Now try to complete all the rows in the table with similar forms.

possessive apostrophe 1

4. Using the of construction

Decide which of these are right and which wrong and then click here for some notes.

  1. the car's cost
  2. the cost of the car
  3. the work of a day
  4. a day's work
  5. the chair's legs
  6. the legs of the chair
  1. the dog's ears
  2. the ears of the dog
  3. the government's decision
  4. the decision of the government
  5. the insect's nest
  6. the nest of the insects
  1. the house's roof
  2. the roof of the house
  3. Germany's population
  4. the population of Germany
  5. Mary's pencil
  6. the pencil of Mary

5. Using other verbs to denote ownership

There are a few verbs in English that we can use instead of the grammar of the language:

  1. He owns the house.
  2. The house belongs to him.
  3. I possess some good antiques.
  4. He holds the answer.
  5. I have two computers.
  6. He carries the responsibility.


A few more notes

  1. Linguists prefer the term the genitive to refer to these structures because it makes more sense than possessive.  The reason is simple:
    The term possessive works OK if something can really be said to be the property of something or someone else, as in, e.g.:
        it's my car
    but that will not work so well with, e.g.:
        he's my brother
        the roof of the house
        the government's decision
    etc. because people don't own their relations, things don't own each other and nobody can really be said to own a decision.
  2. There is a single possessive question word and relative pronoun, whose, as in
        Whose pen is this?
        This is the man whose car we damaged.
        It's an idea whose time has come.
  3. The pronunciation of the 's sound varies between /z/ and /ɪz/.  Some will tell you that it's wrong to pronounce, e.g., James' car as /dʒeɪmzɪz kɑː/ rather than as /dʒeɪmz kɑː/ but, informally at least, such pronunciations are quite common.  In fact, the /ɪz/ pronunciation is unavoidable in France's population and at many other times (although, again, some people prefer to use a /əz/ sound instead).
  4. English is very unusual in having both the 's structure and the of structure.  Most languages content themselves with only one way of adding a genitive to a noun, putting some kind of marker either before or after it.
  5. Some languages will change the verb, the noun and any adjectives to show the genitive.  Speakers of these languages will have trouble with the English constructions.
  6. Great confusion is caused by the difference between one's and ones.  The distinction is:
    one's is the possessive adjective form of one so we get, e.g.:
        One must try to do one's best
    is the plural form of one meaning a single noun so we get, e.g.:
        I want the blue one not any of the red ones

There's no test on any of this but it is an essential area to know for any language teacher.

Related guides
the genitive for a more advanced guide to the area
pronouns an essential guide personal pronouns, including genitives