PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Advanced English Grammar for ESL Learners (2011)
2 Possessive nouns and personal pronouns
This chapter deals with three topics: (1) the correct forms of possessive nouns and personal pronouns, (2) the different meanings of possessive nouns and personal pronouns, and (3) possessives formed with of.
The correct forms of possessive nouns and personal pronouns
Possessive nouns and pronouns have the same functions but are formed in very different ways.
The possessive form of nouns
Up until the sixteenth century the plural -s and the possessive -s were spelled exactly the same way: -s. Beginning in the sixteenth century, people began distinguishing the two different grammatical endings by marking the possessive -s with an apostrophe. For example:
Note: The origin of this use of the apostrophe is odd. In the late middle ages, people (mistakenly) thought that the possessive -s was a contraction of his. For example, John’s book was thought to be a contraction of John, his book. Thus the apostrophe was introduced to indicate the missing letters of his in the same way that the apostrophe in doesn’t indicates the missing o in the contraction of not. Despite the nonsensical rationale for this use of the apostrophe, the idea of using the apostrophe to distinguish between the two meanings had become firmly established by Shakespeare’s time. The use of the apostrophe after the -s to signal the possessive use of the plural noun did not become universally accepted until the nineteenth century.
We now have this apparent three-way distinction among the three forms: plural -s, singular possessive -’s, and plural possessive -s’:
While it is correct to call -s’ the plural possessive, it is a mistake is to think of the -’s as the singular possessive. The problem with this definition arises with the possessive forms of irregular nouns that become plural without adding a plural -s, for example:
As you can see, -’s is used with these plural possessive nouns, not -s’. This is not some kind of strange exception to the general rule about plurals and possessives. It actually makes perfect sense: if we used -s’ with these irregular nouns, it would mean (incorrectly, of course) that this -s is what makes these nouns plural. Actually, the -s has nothing to do with these nouns being plural; the only function of this -s is to show possession.
A much better way to think of the plural and possessive -s’ is the following:
Usually -’s is attached to singular nouns. However, in the case of irregular nouns, -’s is attached to the plural form to show that the plural form is possessive. In other words, -’s means that whatever kind of noun the -’s is attached to (singular regular noun or plural irregular noun), that noun is now marked as being possessive. The -s’ is really the special case in which the -s is playing two different and unrelated roles at the same time: (1) making the noun plural and (2) making the noun possessive. This analysis will ensure that you will always use the right form for both regular and irregular nouns.
Fill in the correct forms of the plural and possessives. An example is provided.
The possessive form of personal pronouns
Like other personal pronouns, the possessive pronoun has two numbers (singular and plural) and three persons: first person (speaker); second person (person spoken to); and third person (person or thing spoken about). Possessive personal pronouns differ from possessive nouns in that there are two distinct forms for each possessive pronoun. One form functions as an adjective; that is, the pronoun modifies a following noun. The other form functions as a true pronoun; that is, the pronoun stands by itself in place of a noun. Here is an example using the first person singular pronoun:
The two forms are not interchangeable:
X This is mine coat.
X That coat is my.
There is no standard terminology for the two different pronoun functions. In this book we will refer to possessive pronouns that function as adjectives as adjectival possessive pronouns. We will refer to possessive pronouns that function as true pronouns as pronominal possessive pronouns. Here is a complete list of both types of possessive pronouns:
There are several common mistakes with apostrophes when we use the possessive pronominal forms that end in -s (yours, hers, its, ours, yours, and theirs). We so strongly associate apostrophes with possessive noun forms that end in -s that it is easy to mistakenly extend the apostrophe to possessive pronouns that also end in -s. For example:
I found John’s books. X Did you find your’s?
Our friends’ reservation is for Tuesday. X When is their’s for?
Distinguishing between its and it’s
One of the most common errors in written English is confusing the third person singular pronoun its with it’s, the contracted form of it is. The major causes of the confusion is that the apostrophe in it’s is associated with the meaning of possession so that as a result we incorrectly use it’s as the possessive. For example:
X My car lost it’s windshield wiper.
X The dog already got it’s treat.
The simplest and most reliable way to distinguish the contracted form of it is from the uncontracted possessive pronoun its is to see if you can expand its or it’s to it is. If the expanded two-word expression makes sense, then you know that you should use the contracted form it’s. If the expanded two-word expression makes no sense at all, then you know that you are dealing with the possessive pronoun and that you should NOT use the apostrophe.
Here is this test applied to the two example sentences above:
The expanded form it is windshield wiper makes no sense, so we know that it’s is actually a possessive pronoun that should be spelled without the apostrophe:
My car lost its windshield wiper.
Here is the same technique applied to the second example:
The expanded form it is treat makes no sense, so again we know that it’s is really an uncontracted possessive pronoun:
The dog already got its treat.
Expand the its and it’s in the following sentences and then write the corrected form under the expanded form. If the original is already correct, write “OK” under the expanded form. The first two questions are done as examples.
Our team lost it’s best player.
It’s a beautiful day for an outing.
1. The train just came in. Its on Track 7.
2. The kitchen needs its windows cleaned.
3. The store is cutting back on it’s hours.
4. I think its a big mistake to do it.
5. The drug will lose it’s effectiveness with extensive use.
6. Its a good investment.
7. The government expressed its opposition to the treaty.
8. The city had totally redesigned it’s website.
9. The balloon was slowly losing its air.
10. Its not easy to cash a check from a foreign bank.
The different meanings of possessive nouns and personal pronouns
There are a number of different meanings in the way possessive nouns and personal pronouns are used. Listed below are the five most common.
1. Possession. The single most common use of possessive nouns and pronouns— to show ownership or possession. For example:
The family’s car / their car
2. Association. People or things associated with the possessive noun or pronoun. For example:
Ralph’s neighborhood / his neighborhood
Susan’s doctor / her doctor
Note: Ralph does not own his neighborhood nor does Susan own her doctor.
3. Attribute. A characteristic, part, or feature of the possessive noun or pronoun. For example:
Emily’s red hair / her red hair
Jack’s quick temper / his quick temper
4. Action. Some mental or physical action performed by the noun or pronoun. For example:
The editor’s decision / her decision
The company’s determination to succeed /its determination to succeed
5. Measurement. An expression of value or time. For example:
The dollar’s declining worth / its declining worth
An hour’s delay / its delay
In the blank space after each sentence, write the meaning of the underlined phrase. Use one of the following five categories: (1) possession, (2) association, (3) attribute, (4) action, (5) measurement. The first question is done as an example.
Alice’s determination grew even stronger. (3) attribute
1. The lawyer asked for a week’s postponement of the trial. _____________
2. Joan’s friends discouraged her from seeing him again. __________________
3. John’s interference with another player resulted in a penalty. _____________
4. This morning, I took Sally’s lunch by mistake. ____________________
5. The court’s refusal to hear the case came as a shock. __________________
6. Jason’s cheerful nature made everyone like him. _____________________
7. We sent out invitations to the couples’ friends and relatives. ________________________
8. They decided to take a week’s vacation in Colorado. _________________________
9. The judge’s decisions are final. _____________________
10. Everyone’s investments had declined about 40 percent. _____________________
Possessive formed with of
In addition to the kinds of possessives we have examined so far (which we will now call s possessives), English can also show possession by the use of the preposition of. We will call possessives formed this way of possessives. Here are some examples where both types of possessives can be used:
While the s and of possessives mean the same thing and are usually interchangeable, there are a number of cases in which they are not interchangeable. To a large extent, the meaning of the possessive determines whether the two forms of the possessive are interchangeable or not. Let us look at the five different meanings of the possessive we discussed above and see how compatible they are with the of possessive:
Here are some examples of possession with both types of possessives.
Clearly, the s possessive is strongly preferred in the meaning of possession.
Here are some examples of associations with both types of possessives.
With this group, there is distinction between animate and inanimate possessive nouns. When the possessive noun is inanimate, both s and of possessives are used.
Here are some examples of attributes with both types of possessives.
With this group also, there is distinction between animate and inanimate possessive nouns. When the possessive noun is inanimate, both s and of possessives are permitted.
Here are some examples of action with both types of possessives.
This group permits both s and of possessives equally.
Here are some examples of measurement with both types of possessives.
This group also permits both s and of possessive equally.
Below are s possessive phrases. In the space provided, write the of possessive form if it is grammatical. If it is not, write “ungrammatical.” The first two questions are done as examples.
the game’s rules the rules of the game
my parents’ bank ungrammatical
1. two years’ duration ______________________________
2. William’s backyard __________________________________
3. the lawyer’s recommendation __________________________
4. the yen’s status ________________________________
5. the airport’s runway ___________________________
6. Mary’s knee ________________________________
7. Roberta’s boss ________________________________
8. my aunt’s best dishes ___________________________
9. the tissue’s fi rmness _____________________________
10. Mr. Brown’s proposal ______________________________