What Is a Possessive Adjective?

G. Wiesen

A possessive adjective is used along with a noun to indicate that someone has ownership or possession over that noun. While these words have a form that is similar to pronouns in appearance, and are sometimes labeled as possessive pronouns, they function very differently from pronouns. Functionally, however, these words are used in much the same way as determiners such as the definite article “the,” and so are sometimes called possessive determiners. Due to the appearance of the possessive adjective “its,” it can often be misspelled with an apostrophe.

In the sentence, "the girl held her cat," the word "her" is a possessive adjective because it describes possession of the noun, "cat."
In the sentence, "the girl held her cat," the word "her" is a possessive adjective because it describes possession of the noun, "cat."

In English, possessive adjectives usually look much like pronouns and so they are sometimes referred to as possessive pronouns. Common possessive adjectives in English include “its,” “his,” “her,” and “my,” which are all similar to pronouns such as “it,” “him,” “her,” and “me.” “Her” is used as both a pronoun and a possessive adjective and can be used together in a sentence like “I know her; that is her husband over there.” The term “possessive pronoun” is something of a misnomer, however, since these words cannot be used to replace nouns within a sentence. In fact, a possessive adjective is always used with a noun in phrases like “my car,” “her book,” or “its sense of direction.”

"Their" is a possessive adjective in the sentence, "The kids ran after their dog."
"Their" is a possessive adjective in the sentence, "The kids ran after their dog."

This usage has led to the phrase “possessive determiner” to describe these types of words, which is more grammatically accurate. Determiners include articles like “a” or “the,” and the definite article “the” can be used in much the same way as a possessive adjective, though it does not indicate ownership. Much as someone can say “the car is blue,” that speaker can also say “my car is blue” or “her car is blue.” Possessive adjectives can also be used with phrases that indicate quantity in much the same way the direct article “the” can be used; “the three cars” can easily be replaced with “my three cars” or “their three cars.”

When a possessive adjective in English is used with other adjectives, it almost always comes first in phrases like “My big, blue house” or “Their smart, handsome children.” One common mistake in written English occurs due to the possessive nature of the adjective “its.” For many words, possessive forms can be made through the use of an apostrophe and the letter “s,” such as “The dog’s ball” or “My brother’s car.” In contrast to this, however, the possessive adjective “its” does not have an apostrophe, and the word “it’s” is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.”

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Discussion Comments


@EdRick - Those are really good questions! The possessive pronouns are indeed the words that can stand on their own, like "mine" and "hers."

Some words have the same form whether they are being used as a possessive pronoun or a possessive adjective, and those are "his" and "its." So you could say "My dog is bigger than his dog" or "My dog is bigger than his" and both would be correct.

"Whose" is an interrogative pronoun, an interrogative adjective, or a relative pronoun, depending on how it is used. So if you said, "Whose are these shoes?" you've used it as an interrogative pronoun, but if you said, "Whose shoes are these?" you've used it as an interrogative adjective. And if you said "I gave a ride to the girls whose mother couldn't pick them up," it's a relative pronoun.


If words like "my" and "her" are *not* possessive pronouns, then what *is* a possessive pronoun? Is there even any such thing? Would "mine" be a possessive pronoun because it *can* take the place of a noun in a sentence?

Here's an example of what I mean: "Her coat is newer than my coat" can become "Her coat is newer than mine." "Mine" then takes the place of "coat," whereas in the first sentence, "my" is really just an adjective modifying "coat."

And what about "whose"? Is that a possessive adjective or a possessive pronoun?

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