logo ELT Concourse teacher training
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 determiners

These, as the name states, are a form of determiner.  In older grammars, you may see them described as possessive adjectives.  That term was popular because the words do modify the nouns they precede but they do not behave like adjectives in most respects.  On this site, the items are referred to as possessive determiners.
For example:
    It is his car
Now try to complete all the rows in the table with similar determiners.

possessive adjectives

2. Possessive pronouns

Like other pronouns, these stand for the noun.  For example:
    That car is hers
can be rephrased as:
    That is her car
with hers standing in for the noun phrase her car.
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 and is also called the Saxon genitive.  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

In English, unusually, there is a parallel structure using the preposition of to express ownership or belonging.
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 needs repairing
        The government's decision is final
        They are calling for her release
    etc. because people don't own their relations, things don't own each other, nobody can really be said to own a decision and the idea of release resists any idea of ownership.
    The genitive in English can then:
    1. show possession
          That's my house
    2. show source
          I got your letter
    3. show relationships
          Peter is his uncle
    4. describe
          It'll be a day's work
  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 determiner 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
  7. Some confusion is also caused by the difference between its and it's.  The distinction is:
    its is the possessive determiner so we get, e.g.:
        This is its natural position
    is a contraction of it is or it has so we get, e.g.:
        It's raining = It is raining
        It's rained = It has rained

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 and determiners, including genitives