Possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives - what’s the difference?
At school, I remember being taught about possessive pronouns showing ownership of a thing, for example ‘that’s my bag’ or ‘it’s his car’.
This type of example is used worldwide to show how possessive pronouns work. Unfortunately, these forms (my, your, his, her, our, their) do not actually do the job of pronouns at all. Here’s why…
Firstly, what is a pronoun?
A pronoun, by definition, represents, or functions as a noun. We can use pronouns directly in place of nouns, as in the following sentences:
Derek lives on a boat. (where the noun here is ‘Derek’)
He lives on a boat. (where the pronoun ‘he’ directly replaces the noun ‘Derek’).
Other pronouns can replace object nouns or noun phrases, as in:
The boat is 30 feet long (noun phrase = The boat)
It is 30 feet long (the pronoun ‘it’ replaces the whole noun phrase directly)
So why are ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’ and ‘her’ not pronouns?
We can identify what kind of word these are by using a substitution test. Remembering that a pronoun is only a pronoun if it can directly replace a noun, think about the following sentence:
His boat is 30 feet long.
Can ‘his’ be directly replaced by a noun here?
Answer: No - the noun we looked at before is ‘Derek’. Substituting ‘his’ for ‘Derek’ would give us the sentence:
Derek boat is 30 feet long
Which is grammatically incorrect. To make this a good sentence, we have to add the possessive ’s to the noun:
Derek’s boat is 30 feet long.
Therefore, ‘his’ cannot directly replace the noun, therefore ’his’ is not a pronoun!
So what is it?
The ‘his’ in the above example is giving us more information about the noun ‘boat’, in this case, telling us who it belongs to. In other words, it is modifying the word ‘boat’. Adjectives modify, or describe, nouns, so because ‘boat’ is a noun, the ‘his’ in the sentence must be an adjective. This ‘his’, followed by a noun, is a possessive adjective, not a possessive pronoun.
And what is a possessive pronoun?
A possessive pronoun is a word which can replace a noun or noun phrase (as above) to show possession. For example, in the sentence:
That boat is his
We have another ‘his’, this time one which replaces the noun phrase ‘Derek’s boat’, as in the full sentence:
That boat is Derek’s boat
*Usually, however, we remove the second ‘boat’, as it is repetitive, so we would more naturally say ‘that boat is Derek’s’. This is where the confusion about possessive adjectives and pronouns probably comes from - it feels like ‘his’ is doing the same job here as it was in the earlier examples.
Another substitution test can show how possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives are really different. If we change ‘Derek’ to ‘Sarah’, the difference becomes clear, as in the following sentences:
Sarah’s boat is 40 feet long
Her boat is 40 feet long (‘her’ = possessive adjective)
That boat is Sarah’s (boat)
That boat is hers (‘hers’ = possessive pronoun)
The masculine adjective ‘his’ looks the same as the pronoun ‘his’ (as in the examples above), though by changing to ‘her’, the pronoun form becomes ‘hers’. Other possessive adjectives and pronoun differences:
His (adjective) - his (pronoun)
Her (adjective) - hers (pronoun)
Our (adjective) - ours (pronoun)
Their (adjective) - theirs (pronoun)
Now think of sentences to show the contrast between these adjectives and pronouns, as we did with Derek and Sarah’s boats…
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
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