How to Use Possessive Pronouns to Show Ownership

Pronouns help writers shorten their sentences and vary their word choices so writing doesn’t seem repetitive. A pronoun is a short, generic word that replaces a noun. It can have one of three jobs:

  • Actor: replace a noun that performs the action in the sentence (called nominative case; he, she, I, we, and they in English)
  • Owner: replace a noun that owns or possesses another noun in the sentence (called possessive case; mine, his, hers, ours, and theirs in English)
  • Object: replace a noun that receives the action in the sentence (called objective case; me, you, him, her, us, and them in English)

This article will help you understand how possessive pronouns work and when to use them.

What Is a Possessive Pronoun?

Use possessive pronouns to show that an item, object, or idea belongs to someone or something that you already mentioned in the sentence or story. Possessive pronouns show ownership; use them to replace a noun that owns something.

To show ownership on regular nouns, we add an apostrophe and an s to the end of the word (Cindy’s bicycle; the country’s flag; the students’ teacher). You use an apostrophe on the original noun, but you do not use an apostrophe to create a possessive pronoun (so her’s and their’s are wrong, for example).

Here, a possessive pronoun can replace the possessive noun Cindy’s. When you replace Cindy’s with a possessive pronoun, Cindy’s bicycle becomes her bicycle. Since Cindy is just one person, choose a singular possessive pronoun to replace Cindy.

  • Singular: my, mine, your, yours, her, hers, his, its (only one owner)
  • Plural: our, ours, your, yours, their, theirs (more than one owner)

If you’re writing a story about Cindy and her bicycle, then you can vary your word choice so your story doesn’t seem repetitive. This is the perfect opportunity to use a possessive pronoun to replace Cindy’s name in some parts of your story. Imagine how boring a story would be if a writer repeated the owner’s name in every sentence!

What is a Possessive Adjective?

If you’re taking a higher level English course, your instructor might want you to learn the difference between a possessive pronoun and a possessive adjective (sometimes called a possessive determiner). Most writers lump these two options together under the term possessive pronoun because they play similar roles. The key difference between a possessive pronoun and a possessive adjective is whether the word replaces the owner and the object or just the owner.

  • Possessive Pronouns Replace the Owner and the Object: mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs (Ex: The pen is my pen. The pen is mine.)
  • Possessive Adjectives Replace only the Owner and Must Connect to a Noun: my, your, his, her, its, our, their (Ex: That’s Lisa’s That’s her pen.)

Possessive determiners are more commonly called possessive adjectives because of their placement and function. Both regular adjectives and possessive adjectives tell us more about nouns. In the example, above my tells us about the pen. A possessive adjective must come before the noun it’s describing.

You usually won’t need to think about this difference between possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives. People will understand if you refer to both as possessive pronouns.

What Words Aren’t Possessive Pronouns?

You may read or hear mines, I’s, and it’s as possessive pronouns on the internet and on television, but you should not embrace these common possessive pronoun mistakes in formal or professional settings.

  • Mines, where an s added to the end of mine, comes from applying the same pattern from yours, ours, and theirs to mine. Mines is not accepted as a possessive pronoun in formal written English, though it is often used in spoken English. To show possession with a pronoun that can stand alone, use mine (without an s).
  • I’s, which is a combination of the first person pronoun I and misapplying the pattern for showing possession by proper nouns and specific nouns, is an error in formal written English, though its use is growing in spoken English. The appropriate first person possessive is my. If you and another person are throwing a party together, you would invite them to Kate’s and my party.
  • It’s, with an apostrophe between the t and s, is a contraction that joins the words it and is. This error can stem from forgetting the rule a pronoun never takes an apostrophe; or it can come from applying the pattern for showing possession by proper nouns and specific nouns, which do take an apostrophe and an s. Using the conjunction rather than the pronoun is considered a spelling error and is not accepted in formal written English. To test whether you need it’s or its, try replacing the word in your sentence with it is to see if it makes sense:
    • Example 1: The restaurant closed its doors after 20 years. (“The restaurant closed it is doors?” No. So use its.)
    • Example 2: It’s so cold today! (“It is so cold today?” Yes. So use it’s.)

To learn more about possessives, check out writing tips from WordRake founder and writing expert Gary Kinder, including How to Form a Joint or Compound Possessive, then sign up to receive tips in your inbox. 

Why We Get Possessive Pronouns Wrong

Personal (nominative) pronouns and their possessive forms sometimes look different. For new writers, the major differences between personal pronouns and possessives can seem overly complicated, counter-intuitive, and confusing, which makes it tough to remember and apply the rules consistently. Use this chart to check your work.


Personal Pronoun

Possessive Pronoun

Examples

I

my, mine

 Personal: I bought a sweater.
 Possessive: That’s my sweater. The sweater is mine.

he, she

his, her, hers

 Personal: She bought a sweater
 Possessive: That’s her sweater. The sweater is hers.

we

our, ours

 Personal: We bought a car.
 Possessive: That’s our car. The car is ours.

you

your, yours

 Personal: You lost the sweater.
 Possessive: Your sweater is lost. It was yours.

they

their, theirs

 Personal: They bought a car.
 Possessive: That’s their car. The car is theirs.

it

its (not it’s)

 Personal: The car had a bug on it.
 Possessive: The car’s tires are black. Its tires are black.

 

Conclusion

Using possessive pronouns properly can be a challenge for anyone who writes instinctively. But choosing pronouns by instinct rather than by rule can lead to confusing mismatches for your reader. Reviewing your work multiple times is the best way to find grammar slips. When you’re ready to move from repair to refinement, try WordRake to improve clarity, brevity, and flow. In one click, WordRake analyzes your writing and suggests improvements, right in Microsoft Word or Outlook. Try WordRake free for 7 days.

About the Author

Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Our Story

demo_poster_play
WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.