Possessive Pronouns: His, Hers, Mine, and All Their Cohorts

by on October 26th, 2009

Grammar is, of course, an issue of concern on the Sentence Correction questions seen on the GMAT. But good grammar is also generally helpful and is of special importance on the writing sample, which is your chance to show the admissions committee that you are adept at communicating in written English. To improve your writing in general, sometimes it’s worthwhile to explore concepts in grammar that are only infrequently tested on the Verbal portion of the test.

One example of this kind of grammar issue is the possessive pronoun. Possessive pronouns are similar to their non-possessive cousins, regular pronouns. Both must have a clear antecedent, and both must agree with that antecedent in gender and in number. There are a few tricky rules that come into play with possessive pronouns that you don’t see elsewhere, however.

1. No apostrophes needed

When turning a regular singular noun into a possessive noun, one usually uses an apostrophe followed by an “s”. An example would be “the librarian’s book.” However, if we replace “the librarian’s” with a possessive pronoun, it would say “his book” or “her book,” no apostrophe needed. People often become particularly confused by the possessive form of one specific pronoun: it. The rule here is that “it” is followed by an apostrophe and an “s” only to indicate the contraction of “it is.” The possessive form of the pronoun is “its.”

2. Possessive pronouns typically function as adjectives

A possessive pronoun is used to describe a noun, as in the examples seen above. The location of the adjective in the sentence can determine its form in some cases: one would speak of “her book,” but a descriptive sentence would say that “the book is hers.” The same holds true for “their” and “theirs,” “your” and “yours,” and “our” and “ours.” The possessive pronoun “my” changes form more dramatically; “my book” becomes “the book is mine.”

3. Relative pronouns can also be possessive

Relative pronouns that we often use in the nominative case (who, whoever) or in the objective case (whom, whomever) also have a possessive case: “whose” and “whoever’s.” “Whoever’s” is an exception to the “no apostrophes” rule, but you shouldn’t worry too much about it as it is rarely tested on the GMAT.

Example

A plan is being considered to cut costs by limiting the number of shrimp ingested by the flamingos at the zoo; one concern is that visitors may not be as interested in seeing the flamingos if their feathers aren’t as vividly pink.

A. that visitors may not be as interested in seeing the flamingos if their feathers aren’t as vividly pink

B. that visitors may not be as interested in seeing one once their feathers aren’t as vividly pink

C. that visitors may not be as interested in seeing the flamingos if the birds’ feathers aren’t as vividly pink

D. which visitors may not be as interested in seeing the flamingos if the birds’ feathers aren’t as vividly pink

E. which visitors may not be as interested in seeing one once the birds’ feathers aren’t as vividly pink

In the original sentence, the possessive pronoun “their” is used; however, this pronoun has no clear antecedent, since there are two plural nouns in the sentence. Although common sense tells us that “their” refers back to the flamingos, grammatically speaking, it could also refer to the visitors. Therefore, the correct version of the sentence must clarify the possessors of the feathers. That allows us to rule out both A and B. “Which” versus “that” is another frequently tested issue, and here the correct choice is “that,” allowing us to rule out choices D and E. “Which” in D and E would change the meaning of the sentence. The remaining choice, C, correctly uses “that” and also replaces “their” with “the birds’,” which clarifies the sentence’s meaning. While this choice is longer than some of the others, it is the only one to fix the possessive pronoun error without creating a new error.

Overall, possessive pronouns should be handled much the same way as the nominative and objective pronouns: check for agreement, and make sure that there is a clear antecedent in the sentence. The less-common issues associated with possessive pronouns are rarely tested in sentence corrections, so a brief review of apostrophe placement and forms should be sufficient to help polish your writing sample.

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