What Are Possessive Adjectives? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on August 25, 2023

If you're here to learn more about possessive adjectives, you're in for a treat. This article will teach you everything you need to know about what they are and how to use them correctly in your writing.

In short:

  • A possessive adjective is a word that modifies a noun or pronoun to show possession or a relationship.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Possessive Adjectives?

Possessive adjectives are a type of adjective that you can use to denote possession or a relationship. As you may know, all adjectives modify nouns or pronouns, and possessive ones are no different. A sentence with a possessive adjective gives you information about who the noun belongs to or who it has a relationship with.

The most commonly used possessive adjectives these days are as follows:

There are actually many more nowadays since more and more people are choosing to use gender-neutral pronouns, and each one comes with its own possessive adjective. If you're unsure, ask the person what their pronouns are. They will often be able to tell you what the possessive adjective for their pronoun is, but if they don't know, you can look it up.

A possessive adjective sits before a noun or pronoun to show ownership of that noun or pronoun.

Here are some examples (see the possessive adjective underlined and the noun it modifies in bold):

His parents must have dropped him on his head.

Have you seen my glasses?

Yes, they're on your head.

Why We Use Possessive Adjectives

Now you know what possessive adjectives are, let's learn about their various purposes.

To Show a Relationship

Almost every source will tell you this type of adjective is used to denote possession or ownership, and that is correct but incomplete information.

Take the following sentence, for example:

Sally is so lucky because her uncle picks her up from school on Thursdays.

In the example above, we've used the possessive adjective 'her' to talk about Sally's uncle. But does Sally's uncle belong to her? Of course not! But the word 'her' placed right before the noun 'uncle' tells us that the relationship is with Sally. It's not just anybody's uncle; it's Sally's.

The same principle applies to friendships:

Mickey would be very lonely without his friend

Again, the friend doesn't belong to Mickey, and Mickey doesn't own his friend, but they do have a relationship. Using the possessive adjective 'his' makes it clear that we are talking about Mickey's friend, not somebody else's friend.

To Show Ownership

The best-known use for possessive adjectives is to denote ownership. If something belongs to somebody, you can show this by using this type of adjective.

Here are some examples:

I've lost my glasses.

How did you break your leg?

The dog is playing with its bone.

Each of these sentences shows who an object or body part belongs to. That's right: it even works with body parts. Our body parts do belong to us, after all.

For Things That Happen to Us

You can also use possessive adjectives to talk about experiences specific to a person or things that happen to them.

For example:

Her accident has had a big impact on her mental health.

What do you think babies see in their dreams?

My training program really helped set me up for success for the marathon.

How to Use Possessive Adjectives

When you use possessive adjectives, there are a few rules to be aware of to ensure your sentence is grammatically correct and that your readers will understand what you're trying to say.

  • The first thing to know is that you should place your possessive adjective right before the noun or pronoun it qualifies, just like you would do with any adjective.

The only exception is if you need to place a qualitative adjective between them.

Subject-Adjective Agreement

Possessive adjectives can be singular or plural, and they can also be gendered.

The singular ones are:

  • my
  • your
  • her
  • his
  • their
  • its

The plural ones are:

  • your
  • our
  • their

You need to look at the subject when deciding which one you'll use. Let's use the following sentence as an example:

Tyler feeds his cats every morning and every evening.

In the above sentence, it could be tempting to use a plural possessive adjective, what with the object being a plural noun ('cats'). However, it's the subject that's important. In this sentence, it's 'Tyler,' a singular male subject. That's why we use the singular male possessive adjective 'his.'

Here are some more examples:

They asked their mom if they could play outside.

You will be given the name of your personal tutor by the end of the week.

Our business is doing very well this year.

Adjective Placement

A possessive adjective is almost always placed directly before the noun it qualifies.

Here are some examples:

The kids have left their toys all over the floor.

Whose glasses are these?

I haven't read her book yet.

The only exception is if there's another type of adjective between the two. There are many types of adjectives, including, but not limited to:

  • descriptive
  • demonstrative
  • interrogative
  • quantitative
  • distributive
  • indefinite

When you want to use more than one adjective in a sequence, there's a particular order you need to follow, and possessive adjectives come first. Then, adjectives share an opinion (unusual, lovely, beautiful). After that, you'll place adjectives about size (big, small, tall), And so on. You can learn more about adjective order in this Cambridge Dictionary article.

So, let's take a look at what this might look like in practice:

She put her long, brown hair up in a ponytail.

The possessive adjective 'her' comes first, followed by the descriptive adjectives 'long' and 'brown.'

Here are some more examples:

We put our best engineers on this project.

He threw out his old, rusty cooking utensils

Why don't you wear your favorite blue shirt?

No Comparative or Superlative Form

Possessive adjectives are one of the few types of adjectives that don't have a comparative or superlative form. Comparative and superlative adjectives are used for comparison, like in the sentence:

My dog is bigger than yours.

The comparative adjective 'bigger' is formed from the descriptive adjective 'big' to show that one animal has a superior quality to the other in size. The corresponding superlative is 'biggest,' and could be used in a sentence to show that of all the animals, one of them is the superior one.

But something can't be more yours or mine. It's either yours or mine; there's no comparison to be made. And that applies to all possessive adjectives, so they don't have a comparative or superlative form.

Gender-Neutral 'Their'

The possessive adjective 'their' can be both singular and plural, gendered and non-gendered. Sound confusing? Think of it instead as a very flexible adjective!

Firstly, you can use it in a general way if you're unsure of the person's gender.

For example:

Somebody has forgotten their wallet on this table.

In the above example, we don't know who the wallet belongs to, so we can't make assumptions about their gender. This means we use the adjective 'their.'

  • Similarly, we can use it to talk about a group of people whose gender is unknown.

For instance:

Everybody must have their bag checked upon arrival. 

It can also be used to talk about a gender-neutral person who has chosen to use 'they' as their preferred pronoun.

For example:

Jen just released their latest album on Spotify. 

Possessive Adjectives vs Pronouns

There's another category of words that look very similar to possessive adjectives: possessive pronouns. Look at this list of possessive pronouns:

  • mine
  • yours
  • his
  • hers
  • its
  • ours
  • theirs

See how similar they look to possessive adjectives? So what's the difference? Well, they're a different part of speech, so they're placed in separate parts of the sentence. As a general rule, pronouns replace nouns, whereas adjectives complement them. That's why it's important not to confuse them and to make the correct choice in your sentences.

Here are some examples with one sentence using a possessive adjective and then what a similar sentence would look like using a possessive pronoun:

The big one my bag.
That big bag is mine.

Her cats are so friendly.
The friendly cats are hers.

Our plants need watering.
The plants that need watering are ours.

This doesn't mean that possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns are interchangeable if only you change the order of the words. They serve different purposes. For instance, in the cat sentence example, the first sentence mainly focuses on the cats; the idea is to say they're friendly. The second sentence's primary purpose is to show who owns the cats.

But the interesting thing here is that possessive adjectives do behave similarly to pronouns, which differentiates them from all other adjectives. Indeed, they can replace possessive nouns.

Look at the following sentence, for example:

The tree's leaves are large and green.

You could replace 'the tree's' with the possessive adjective 'its:'

Its leaves are large and green.

Nonetheless, it's important to remember the difference between possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns and when to use each. You can learn more about possessive pronouns here.

Common Errors

The most common errors with possessive adjectives are spelling errors rather than grammatical errors. Because many of them have homophones (they sound the same but are spelled differently) that are other parts of speech, remembering the correct spelling can be tricky.

The most commonly confused words are:

One thing to remember that will help you always spell these words correctly: apostrophes are for contractions.

Apostrophes are used with nouns to show possession, so you'd be forgiven for thinking that you can add an apostrophe to any word to make it possessive, but that isn't the case. Adding an apostrophe and the letter 's' to a word only makes nouns possessive. You can't make a pronoun or adjective possessive by adding 's

Adding an apostrophe + to any word other than a noun makes it a contraction: two words combined into one.

Here are some examples:

  • it is → it's
  • they are → they're
  • you are → you're
  • who is → who's
  • we will → we'll
  • will not → won't
  • might have → might've

If you see a pronoun with an apostrophe + s, it's a contraction, not a possessive. That's why possessive pronouns never use an apostrophe.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on possessive adjectives and their use in English grammar. I hope you feel well-equipped to use them now in your own writing.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Adjectives modify nouns.
  • Possessive adjectives show who the noun belongs to, what the relationship is between the subject and the noun, or to portray someone's experience.
  • Place the possessive adjective directly before the noun it qualifies unless there are other adjectives in between. 
  • There's no comparative or superlative form for possessive adjectives.
  • The possessive adjective 'their' can be singular or plural, gendered or non-gendered.
  • Don't confuse possessive adjectives vs possessive pronouns.
  • Possessive adjectives, unlike most other adjectives, have some pronominal qualities since they can replace nouns.
  • Apostrophes can only denote possession with nouns; other parts of speech paired with apostrophes are contractions.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like our Grammar Book. It's an online database filled with many articles similar to this one that breaks down complex grammar concepts into accessible articles. And it's free!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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