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Why Do We Have Both A and An?

How English evolved to give us two indefinite articles ("a" and "an") and the odd mix of possessive pronouns that don't quite match.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
July 19, 2013
Episode #376

The Northern English Possessive Pronoun Pattern Won

While forms such as “ourn” and “yourn” were created in midland and southern England by analogy with “mine” and “thine,” in northern England a different analogy was going on. The possessive pronouns “her,” “our,” “your,” and “their” were gaining an “s” at the end instead of an “n,” by analogy with the possessive form for singular nouns and proper nouns, such as “Squiggly’s.” This possessive pattern, plus the fact that “his” already ended in “s,” made it easy for most of the rest of the possessive pronouns to gain a form ending in “s.” These, of course, are our familiar and now-standard words “hers,” “ours,” “yours,” and “theirs.”

Furthermore, once “thee,” “thou,” “thy,” and “thine” fell out of use, “mine” was the only remaining possessive pronoun ending in “n.” “Mine,” “yours,” “his,” “hers,” “its,” “ours,” “theirs”—one of these things is not like the others. With such an obvious exception, it was almost inevitable that the forces of analogy would complete the job and add an “s” to “mine” to produce “mines.” The Oxford English Dictionary has this form in Scottish English from the 17th century, and in Irish English and Caribbean English from the 20th century. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that “mines” is also associated with African American Vernacular English. 

Actually, I’m curious why “mines” didn’t become standard along with all the other “s”-ending possessive pronouns, but that’s language for you. Even now, the system of possessive pronouns is a little unpredictable—but we’ll save that for another episode!

This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at literalminded.wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.

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How “A Napron” Became “An Apron”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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