Oddly, they aren’t just for possession.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #315

Relational Possessives Such as “Him” and “Her”

Even with animate nouns, possessive case doesn’t always mean possession. For example, suppose I were to tell you, “Aardvark called his mother on her birthday.” Although “his” and “her” are possessive pronouns, I’m certainly not claiming that Aardvark owns his mother. Like the rest of us, Aardvark is morally repulsed by slavery, and would never presume ownership of a fellow aardvark, especially not his own mother. (Although she did work like a slave to keep him fed and clothed.) Furthermore, I don’t mean that Aardvark’s mother claims ownership over the anniversary of the date of her birth. Several hundred other aardvarks have that same birthday. Possessives like these, which don’t indicate actual ownership, are sometimes called relational possessives.

To see how illogical the complaint about inanimate possessives is, forget about noun cases, and look at the verb “have.” If you truly believe that inanimate objects can’t possess things, then you should also have a problem with sentences like “A triangle has three sides.” Triangles are inanimate, so they can’t “have” anything!

Sometimes the idea that inanimate nouns don’t have possessive forms shows up in a more specific claim: That the relative pronoun “whose” cannot refer to an inanimate noun. This is the idea that a phrase such as “the car whose windshield got cracked by a piece of gravel” should actually be phrased “the car of which the windshield got cracked by a piece of gravel.” As I wrote in episode 108, “‘whose’ is the only English word we have to refer to inanimate antecedents. Perhaps someone will invent a new word for this purpose, but as of now we’re stuck with ‘whose.’ ”

Interrogative Pronouns and Possessives

So up until now in this episode, I’ve been emphasizing that just about any noun, animate or not, can have a possessive form. Now, though, it’s time for a few exceptions. Although “whose” as a relative pronoun can be used for inanimate nouns, that doesn’t seem to be the case with “whose” as an interrogative pronoun. I would not ask, “Whose windshield got cracked?” if I were asking about a car. I’d ask, “Which car’s windshield got cracked?” The question “Whose windshield got cracked?” calls for an animate answer, such as “Hannah’s windshield.”

The other exceptions are the demonstrative pronouns “this” and “that.” For whatever reason, you just don’t get possessive forms like “this’s” or “that’s,” for inanimate OR animate nouns. The only time you get “that’s” is when it’s a contraction of “that is,” as in “That’s all,” which I’ll be saying shortly.

This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com.


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.