Possessive Adjectives (Short Form) in Spanish

These come before nouns, are often known as the possessive determiners

boys fighting over toy dinosaur
¡Es mi dinosaurio! (It's my dinosaur!).

Jose Luiz Palaez Inc. / Getty Images

Possessive adjectives of Spanish, like those of English, are a way of indicating who owns or is in possession of something. Their use is straightforward, although they (like other adjectives) must match the nouns they modify in both number and gender.

Basics About the Short-Form Possessives

Unlike English, Spanish has two forms of possessive adjectives, a short form that is used before nouns, and a long-form possessive adjective that is used after nouns. They are often known as the possessive determiners. Here are the short-form possessive adjectives (sometimes known as possessive determiners):

  • mi, mis — my — Compra mi piano. (She is buying my piano.)
  • tu, tus — your (singular familiar) — Quiero comprar tu coche. (I want to buy your car.)
  • su, sus — your (singular or plural formal), its, his, her, their — Voy a su oficina. (I am going to his/her/your/their office.)
  • nuestro, nuestra, nuestros, nuestras — our — Es nuestra casa. (It is our house.)
  • vuestro, vuestra, vuestros, vuestras — your (plural familiar) — ¿Dónde están vuestros hijos? (Where are your children?)

Note that the possessive adjectives vary by number and gender. The change is with the nouns they modify, not with the person(s) who own or possess the object. Thus you would say "his book" and "her book" in the same way: su libro. Some examples:

  • Es nuestro coche. (It is our car.)
  • Es nuestra casa. (It is our house.)
  • Son nuestros coches. (They are our cars.)
  • Son nuestras casas. (They are our houses.)

As you might imagine, su and sus can be ambiguous, since they can mean "his," "her," "its," "your," or "their." If the use of su or sus doesn't make the sentence clear, you can use de followed by a prepositional pronoun instead:

  • Quiero comprar su casa. (I want to buy his/her/your/their house.)
  • Quiero comprar la casa de él. (I want to buy his house.)
  • Quiero comprar la casa de ella. (I want to buy her house.)
  • Quiero comprar la casa de usted. (I want to buy your house.)
  • Quiero comprar la casa de ellos. (I want to buy their house.)

In some areas, de él, de ella, and de ellos are preferred over su and sus for saying "his," "her," and "their," even where no ambiguity is present.

Different Forms of ‘Your’

One source of confusion for Spanish students is that there are eight words that can be translated as "your," and they aren't interchangeable. The come in only three groups, however, because of the distinctions Spanish makes for number and gender: tu/tus, su/sus, and vuestro/vuestra/vuestros/vuestras.

The main rule here is that possessives can be classified as either familiar or formal in the same way the pronouns for "you" are. So tu and tus correspond in usage to tú (not the written accent on the pronoun), vuestro and its numbered and gendered forms correspond with vosotros, and su corresponds with usted and ustedes. So if you were talking with someone about her car, you might use tu coche if she is a friend or relative but su coche if she is a stranger.

Grammar Involving the Possessive Forms

There are two common problems that English speakers often encounter with these adjectives:

Overuse of the Possessive Adjectives

The possessive adjectives are used in most cases in the same way as they are used in English. However, you should be aware that in many instances—especially when speaking of body parts, clothing and items intimately associated with an individual—Spanish uses the definite article (el, la, los or las), the equivalent of "the," instead of possessive adjectives.

  • Sam arregla el pelo. (Sam is combing his hair.)
  • Ella juntó las manos para orar. (She joined her hands to pray.)
  • Ricardo rompió los anteojos. (Ricardo broke his glasses.)

Repetition of Possessive Adjectives:

In English, it is common to use a single possessive adjective to refer to more than one noun. In Spanish, a single possessive adjective can refer to only one noun, unless the multiple nouns refer to the same persons or objects. For example, "son mis amigos y hermanos" would mean "they are my friends and siblings" (with the friends and the siblings being identical persons), while "son mis amigos y mis hermanos" would mean "they are my friends and siblings" (the friends not being the same people as the siblings). Similarly, "my cats and dogs" would be translated as "mis gatos y mis perros."

Key Takeaways

  • The possessive adjectives (also known as possessive determiners) are used to indicate who owns or is in possession of something.
  • The possessive adjectives are distinguished in number and sometimes gender of what is possessed.
  • The possessive forms su and sus can mean "his," "hers," "its," or "your," so you must rely on context when translating.