What Is the Possessive Case? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Possessive Case

The possessive case is used for showing possession (i.e., ownership). The possessive case applies to nouns, pronouns, and determiners. For example:
  • Possessive Nouns. With a noun, the possessive case is usually shown by preceding it with "of" or by adding 's (or just ') to the end.
  • Possessive Pronouns. The possessive-case pronouns are "mine," "yours," "his," "hers," "its," "ours," and "theirs."
  • Possessive Determiners. The possessive-case determiners are "my," "your," "his," "her," "its," "our," and "their." (The possessive determiners are known as possessive adjectives in traditional grammar.)
possessive case

Examples of the Possessive Case

The possessive case is predominantly used for showing possession but not always. Look at these examples (possessive case shaded):
  • I don't have a bank account, because I don't know my mother's maiden name. (Comedian Paula Poundstone)
  • (These two are clearly about possession. They mean: "the mother of me" and "the maiden name of my mother.")
  • You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans. (President Ronald Reagan)
  • (These two are clearly about possession. They mean: "character of a fellow " and "way of him.")
  • Psychiatry enables us to correct our faults by confessing our parents' shortcomings. (Educator Laurence J Peter)
  • (These three are about possession too.)
  • My theory of evolution is that Darwin was adopted. (Comedian Steven Wright)
  • (Remember that a noun can be made possessive by preceding it with "of." This is common when the possessor is not a person. In this example, the possessor is "evolution," which "owns" "my theory." You can see that the idea of possession (i.e., ownership) can be quite abstract.)
  • Hope is tomorrow's veneer over today's disappointment. (Comedian Evan Esar)
  • (Here are two more examples of abstract possession. How can a time own something? This is common in temporal expressions such as "a day's pay" and "two weeks' holiday.")
  • Wagner's music is better than it sounds. (Comedian Edgar Wilson Nye)
  • (This is another example of abstract possession. Wagner does not own the music. It is music by Wagner. This happens in terms such "children's stories," which are stories for children (not owned by them), and "Picasso's paintings," which are paintings by Picasso (not owned by him).)

Complications with the Possessive Case

The possessive case often creates debate among grammarians. The main issues are:

Q: Is the possessive case the same as the genitive case? A: Yes

The terms "possessive case" and "genitive case" can be used interchangeably. However, as the possessive case quite often has nothing to do with possession, some grammarians draw a distinction between the "possessive case" and the "genitive case." Look at this example:
  • He used Mike's garage to store Monet's paintings.
There are two examples of the possessive case in the sentence above. The second example, however, tells us the paintings were by Monet. It does not indicate that Monet owned them. Some grammarians would call this the genitive case as opposed to the possessive case.

Read more about the genitive case.

Q: Are possessive determiners a type of pronoun? A: Yes

The possessive determiners ("my," "your," "his," "her," "its," "our," and "their") have a pronominal function (i.e., they act like pronouns as they replace nouns). Therefore, they are also classified as possessive pronouns. This can cause confusion because, traditionally, the possessive pronouns are "mine," "yours," "his," "hers," "its," "ours," and "theirs."

Here at Grammar Monster, we follow the convention which categorizes them all as "possessives" and further categorizes them into two sub-groups: possessive determiners ("my," "your," etc.) and possessive pronouns ("mine," "yours," etc.). To avoid this confusion, some grammarians call "mine," "yours," etc. absolute possessive pronouns.

Read more about classifying possessive pronouns.

Using Apostrophes to Form Possessive Nouns

Here are the basic rules for creating a possessive noun with an apostrophe:
TypeExamplePossessive Case
singular noundogdog's dinner
plural noundogsdogs' dinner
singular noun ending -sChrisChris' hat or Chris's hat
plural noun not ending -sPeoplePeople's rights
Read more about creating possessive nouns with apostrophes.

Why Should I Care about the Possessive Case?

If you're learning a foreign language, it will be worth becoming familiar with the possessive case in English because that is a great starting point for understanding how possession is handled in the foreign language.

Here are five more good reasons to get better at the possessive case.

(Reason 1) When using an apostrophe for possession, put it in the right place.

Look at the apostrophes in the examples below. They are different sides of the "s," but they are both correct.
  • The dog's kennel
  • The dogs' kennel
So, does a possessive apostrophe go before or after the "s"? Here's the basic rule:
The apostrophe goes before the "s" for a singular possessor (e.g., one dog's kennel) and after the "s" when it's more than one possessor (e.g., two dogs' kennel).

Be aware that "dog" and "dogs" are the possessors. The position of the apostrophe has nothing to do with "kennel." The thing being possessed can be singular or plural. It has no effect whatsoever on the apostrophe. Look at these examples:
  • One dog's dinner
  • One dog's dinners
  • Two dogs' dinner
  • Two dogs' dinners
Be careful though. There are two exceptions to the basic rule:

(Exception 1) Plural words that don't end "s":

When the plural of a word doesn't end "s" (e.g., children, women, people, men), the possessive apostrophe is placed before the "s." For example:
  • children's room
  • women's shoes
  • people's rights
  • men's thinking
(Exception 2) Singular words that end "s":

With singular nouns ending "s" (e.g., Wales, Moses, Chris Wells), the possessive form is written either by adding ' (just an apostrophe) or 's depending on how you (yes, you personally) say the possessive form. For example:
  • Chris Wells' attitude
  • (This is correct for those who say Chris Wells' attitude.)
  • Chris Wells's attitude
  • (This is correct for those who say Chris Welliz attitude.)
Be aware that some style guides state you shouldn't use the 's version for religious characters. So, if you're talking about the likes of Jesus or Moses, you might want to opt for the Jesus' and Moses' versions (as opposed to Jesus's and Moses's).

Read more about the possessive apostrophe.

(Reason 2) Don't add an apostrophe to a word just because it ends "s."

This is a common mistake, and it is a grammatical howler. This mistake is most commonly seen with the plurals of nouns, but it happens with verbs too (e.g., She walk's to work.)

Here are some examples:
  • I like pig's. Dog's look up to us. Cat's look down on us. Pig's treat us as equal's.
  • (These are all wrong.)
  • I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.
  • A spoken word is not a sparrow. Once it fly's out, you cannot catch it.
  • A spoken word is not a sparrow. Once it flies out, you cannot catch it.
  • (This mistake is sometimes made with verbs too. This should be "flies.")
  • Tomato's and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French; garlic makes it good.
  • Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French; garlic makes it good.
  • (This mistake is most common with nouns that end with a vowel, e.g., video's , banana's .)
Read more about misusing apostrophes.

(Reason 3) Do not confuse the possessive determiners with similar-sounding contractions.

A few of the possessive determiners sound like contractions that feature apostrophes. Do not get them mixed up.

Remember: There are no apostrophes in any possessive determiners.

(1) Do not confuse its with it's:

The contraction "it's" has nothing to do with possession, i.e., it is not a possessive determiner. "It's" is short for "it is" or "it has." This is a 100% rule. If you can't expand your "it's" to "it is" or "it has," then it's wrong.
  • A country can be judged by the quality of it's proverbs.
Read more about its and it's.

(2) Do not confused your with you're:

"You're" is short for "you are." This is a 100% rule. If you can't expand your "you're" to "you are," then it's wrong.
  • Even if you fall on you're face, you're still moving forward.
  • (The first "you're" is wrong. The second is correct.)
Read more about your and you're.

(3) Do not confuse their with they're or there.

"They're" is short for "they are." This is a 100% rule. If you can't expand your "they're" to "there are," then it's wrong.
  • Forgive your enemies, but never forget there names.
Read more about their, there, and they're.

(Reason 4) Don't put an apostrophe in "yours," "hers," "ours," or "theirs."

There are no apostrophes in any possessive pronouns.
  • These are their's.
  • These are theirs.
  • Our's are more superior to their's.
  • Our's are more superior to theirs.

(Reason 5) Don't use "his/her."

Look at this sentence:
  • Each member is responsible for his/her guests.
  • (This is clumsy and outdated.)
Here's the solution: When your singular person could be male or female use "their."
  • Each member is responsible for their guests.
Read more about using their to replace his/her.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Take a test on the possessive case What is the nominative case? What is the accusative case? What is the dative case? What is the genitive case? What are possessive nouns? What are absolute possessive pronouns? What are possessive adjectives? What are possessive pronouns? More about creating possessive nouns with apostrophes Glossary of grammatical terms