Terminology in English Teaching

Those who did reasonably well with English language at school will probably remember what adjectives and pronouns are all about.  But did you ever come across “possessive pronouns”, “possessive determiners” and “possessive adjectives”?  Probably not, but if you have a fascination with the English language then you might be interested in our recent experience with these terms.

It all started with an enquiry from a teacher whose native tongue was not English but who had studied the language in great depth and really knew his stuff.  The email exchanges that took place are documented below but beware it is not for the faint-hearted – you couldn’t be criticised for skipping the exchanges and jumping to our conclusions at the end!

Teacher 1 (Knowledgeable Student of the English Language)

I would like to suggest that in your KS2 quizzes titled Pronouns, Your and You’re and Their, They’re and There you ought to differentiate between “pronouns”, “possessive pronouns” and “possessive adjectives”.  This terminology does not seem to be explained anywhere on your site.

Teacher 2 (Our KS2 English Quiz Writer)

In general, we do not refer to possessive adjectives in English. In languages such as Latin and German, a distinction is made between possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives. They are considered pronouns in English because they replace nouns / noun phrases (i.e. The chief officer’s hat = His hat).

There is some disagreement, however. My Chambers Guide to Grammar does distinguish possessives as pronouns or adjectives. My University linguistics textbook, ‘Analysing sentences’, on the other hand, lists my, his, your, etc, as possessive pronouns. Both are authoritative.

Key Stage Two English teaches these words as possessive pronouns — never as adjectives (even though the words do modify nouns). Public schools, where Latin is more likely to be taught, may avoid calling them pronouns.

The easiest way to avoid confusion while remaining consistent might be to refer to the quiz as being about ‘possessives’. This term is frequently used and will include words like ‘my’ along with those like ‘mine’ whichever definition of possessive pronouns you prefer!

Teacher 2 (Our KS2 English Teacher after Further Consideration)

I’ve had a chance to see what’s out there on the Internet regarding the possessive pronoun / possessive adjective confusion and I now see that the term possessive adjective IS used in the context of teaching English as a Second Language. I think this might be because many other languages do not have the option to say ‘John’s car’ but must use the genitive case and say ‘the car of John’. Perhaps it would be confusing to introduce the concept of a possessive pronoun existing in English which does not exist in the learner’s mother tongue.

In languages which must use the genitive case for nouns expressing possession (‘la voiture de John’, in French), when it’s not necessary to mention John by name, it is still possible to say ‘his car’ instead (‘sa voiture’). ‘His’, in this case, can only be an adjective modifying the noun, ‘car’. It hasn’t replaced a noun, since the form ‘John’s car’ is not a possibility. In English, however, because it IS possible to say ‘John’s car’, then ‘his’ is a pronoun replacing ‘John’.

In the nineteenth-century, there was a movement to ‘Latinise’ English grammar, which I think might be responsible for introducing terms such as ‘possessive adjectives’ (the movement was also responsible for the ‘rule’ that a sentence can’t end on a preposition — which is not true in English, but is true in Latin).

Teacher 1 (Knowledgeable Student of the English Language)

The authoritative Oxford English language dictionary gives these definitions (cut exactly as they appear):

Definition of theirs:

possessive pronoun

used to refer to a thing or things belonging to or associated with two or more people or things previously mentioned:

they think everything is theirs

a favourite game of theirs

Obviously, mine, yours, his, hers, and ours are also possessive pronouns: they stand instead of the noun or noun phrase.


Definition of their

possessive determiner

1. belonging to or associated with the people or things previously mentioned or easily identified:

parents keen to help their children

belonging to or associated with a person of unspecified sex:

she heard someone blow their nose loudly

2. (Their) used in titles:

a double portrait of Their Majesties

Obviously, my, your, his, her, its, and our are also possessive determiners. A synonym for possessive determiners is ‘possessive adjectives’ BUT they are NOT pronouns: possessive determiners introduce a noun or noun phrase: cf possessive pronouns.

From Wikipedia:

Possessive determiners constitute a sub-class of determiners which modify a noun by attributing possession (or other sense of belonging) to someone or something. They are also known as possessive adjectives.

Examples in English include possessive forms of the personal pronouns, namely my, your, his, her, its, our and their, but excluding the forms such as mine and ours that are used as possessive pronouns and not as determiners.

Teacher 2 (Our KS2 English Teacher after More Consideration)

I’ve just been looking in the Oxford English Dictionary, which I hadn’t thought to check. Below is the definition for ‘her’.

her, pron.3

a. possess. adj. (orig. the possessive use of the genitive of the pronoun): Of or belonging to her; that woman’s, that female’s; also refl. of or belonging to herself, her own.

It is clearly listed as a pronoun, not as a pronoun or adjective (the dictionary always lists all possible parts of speech for any word — there is only one possibility for ‘her’). The definition above is given as the word’s second definition; it explains that the word is a possessive adjective formed from the possessive, genitive pronoun.

Teacher 1 (Knowledgeable Student of the English Language)

Nonetheless, the definition of ‘their’ from the Oxford English Dictionary (absolutely a pronoun at the same time as being a possessive adjective):

their, pron.

a. poss. adj. (orig. gen. pl. of pers. pron. ) Of, belonging, or pertaining to them; also refl. of or belonging to themselves.

Education Quizzes Conclusions

In our office we followed (or tried to follow!) this conversation in order to make sure that what appeared at our site was correct.  We asked other teachers if they ever used the terminology of “possessive pronouns”, “possessive determiners” and “possessive adjectives” in their teaching to 9 and 10 year olds (KS2 students) and the answer was a resounding “no”.  The consensus was that it is enough for children to grapple with the complexities of “pronouns” and “adjectives” at this age and leave more difficult nomenclature until much later in their education.

It all goes to show how deep the rabbit hole is when dealing with the English language!

Ultimately, we went with the majority decision and stuck with the simple “pronouns” and “adjectives”.  Have we got it right?  Feel free to add your own comments below.

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