Possessive Determiner in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

possessive determiner
In the sentence "My books are my friends," my is a possessive determiner used in front of the nouns books and friends. (Phil Ashley/Getty Images)

In English grammar, a possessive determiner is a type of function word used in front of a noun to express possession or belonging (as in "my phone"). 

The possessive determiners in English are my, your, his, her, its, our, and their.

As Lobeck and Denham point out, there's some overlap between possessive determiners and possessive pronouns. The basic difference, they say, "is that pronouns replace full noun phrases.

Possessive determiners, on the other hand, have to occur with a noun" (Navigating English Grammar, 2014).

Possessive determiners are sometimes called possessive adjectives, weak possessive pronouns, genitive pronouns, possessive determiner pronouns, or simply possessives.

Determiner and Grammar Rules

Examples and Observations

  • "One man, I remember, used to take off his hat and set fire to his hair every now and then, but I do not remember what it proved, if it proved anything at all, except that he was a very interesting man."
    (Dylan Thomas, Quite Early One Morning, 1954)
  • "Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers."
    (Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981
  • "I'd like to be alone with my sandwich for a moment."
    (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons)
  • "He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place."
    (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937
  • "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer."
    (Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  • "You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward."
    (James Thurber, "The Bear Who Let It Alone"
  • "The sextant was old. I found it stacked up with a collection of gramophones and ladies' workboxes in a junkshop. Its brass frame was mottled green-and-black, the silvering on its mirrors had started to blister and peel off."
    (Jonathan Raban, "Sea-Room." For Love & Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling, 1969-1987. Collins Harvill, 1987
  • "Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them."
    (Oscar Wilde
  • "My hovercraft is full of eels."
    (John Cleese as the Hungarian in "The Hungarian Phrasebook Sketch." Monty Python's Flying Circus, Dec. 15, 1970
  • "Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty."
    (Albert Einstein
  • "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
    (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Possessive Adjective or Determiner?

"The title  possessive adjective is actually more often used than possessive determiner but the latter is a more accurate description. Admittedly, in his car, the word his goes before the noun car and to that extent behaves as an adjective, but in *the his car (compare the old car) it shows itself not to be an adjective; it certainly doesn't describe the car itself." (Tony Penston, A Concise Grammar for English Language Teachers.

TP Publications, 2005)

Possessive Pronouns and Possessive Determiners

  • "Most possessive determiners are similar to their corresponding possessive pronouns: her is a possessive determiner, while hers is a possessive pronoun. The possessive determiners his and its are identical to their corresponding possessive pronouns. The function in the sentence determines the part of speech. In The red Toyota is his car, his is a determiner because it's introducing the noun phrase car. In The red Toyota is his, his is a pronoun because it's functioning as a noun phrase. In The company made this pen, this is a determiner. In The company made this, it's a pronoun because it stands in place of a noun phrase."  (June Casagrande, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. Ten Speed Press, 2010)
  • "[The] construction with the possessive pronoun [e.g. a friend of mine] differs from the alternative of possessive determiner + noun (e.g. my friend) mainly in that it is more indefinite. The sentences in (30) below illustrates this point:
(30) a. You know John? A friend of his told me that the food served at that restaurant is awful.

(30) b. You know John? His friend told me that the food served at that restaurant is awful.
  • "The construction with the possessive pronoun, in (30a), can be used if the speaker hasn't specified and doesn't need to specify the identity of the friend. In contrast, the construction with the possessive determiner, in (30b), implies that the speaker and listener both know what friend is intended." (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)