Michael Rosen on possessive determiners and pronouns

In the comments section of his piece in the Guardian on the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test Michael Rosen has been getting some flak for his way of talking about possessive determiners and pronouns:

Children and teachers will be entitled to be muddled if they’ve been taught that “my”, “your”, “her”, “his” and “their” are also “determiners” because in question 46 they turn up as “possessive pronouns”. (Both terms are right, but this double terminology is confusing for 11-year-olds.)

Here’s an example of a critical comment:

“My”, “your”, “his”, “her”, “our” and “their” are not possessive pronouns. Pronouns take the place of a noun, so the corresponding pronouns are “mine”, “yours”, “his”, “hers”, “ours” and “theirs”.

And here’s Rosen’s response:

In the thread above, this matter has been addressed about twenty times. Some grammarians refer to ‘my’ etc as ‘possessive pronouns’, some don’t. You have illustrated one of the points of my article: viz., there is disagreement on this matter of terminology. Please google ‘possessive pronoun’ and see how long it takes you to find the two alternative ways of using that term.

Was Rosen right to say that my, your, her, his, our and their are determiners and pronouns at the same time? The answer depends on whether or not you follow the   National Curriculum (NC). If you do, then the answer is ‘yes’. However, the only way to find out is to look at the (non-statutory) NC Glossary. Here are the entries for ‘pronoun’ and ‘determiner’:

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How does this show that my, your, her, his, our and their are determiners and pronouns at the same time? Well, because examples involving these words crop up in both glossary entries. The conclusion must be that they belong to two word classes at the same time. The same is true, incidentally, for the ‘demonstratives’, e.g. this/these, that/those, and some other items. Other linguists have described this area of grammar differently, but the National Curriculum’s approach seems to be a sensible compromise. (Though perhaps a better word class label for these items would be determiner-pronoun, as has been suggested by some linguists.)

Rosen has a point that all this can cause confusion. If you do as he suggests and google ‘possessive pronoun’ you will indeed find many different answers, many of them not written by experts, and you’ll be overwhelmed by what you read. Don’t use Google to look up grammatical terminology. Try the Englicious Glossary instead. It’s linked to the NC.

Whatever you may think of the National Curriculum, one of its advantages is that it tries to bring some order to grammatical terminology. To my mind we need more: a National Curriculum Grammar in the shape of a concise overview of the grammar of English which makes issues like the one discussed here more explicit.

To find out more about determiners and pronouns have a look at these short videos, which you can use in your classroom. They are available on the Englicious YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/engliciousgrammar):


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8 thoughts on “Michael Rosen on possessive determiners and pronouns

  1. The Englicious Glossary appears to lack an entry for “possessive pronoun” altogether, so that’s not terribly helpful.

    Surely the problem with a National Curriculum grammar is it’s all very well until children go away and read a book or website about grammar that is perfectly accurate but not in line with NC terminology and/or fails to address a particular matter of disagreement, use terms from that book/website, and get marked down as a result? Or should we be discouraging our children from reading around?

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    • I have added an entry for ‘possessive pronoun’, with a link to ‘pronoun’.

      As for your second point, this is indeed an issue, but I think that matters would be worse if the NC didn’t exist. At least in the current situation children will have some terminological continuity throughout the Key Stages if they are in a school where the NC is used.

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  2. Whatever the terminology, why in the world do primary school children need to be taught these linguistic gymnastics? I still remember that when the Literacy Strategy was first rolled out the teacher’ glossary didn’t define an adverb correctly. It said it was ‘a word describing a verb’. But of course it describes any part of speech other than a noun or pronoun. It’s extremely easy to understand, really… (See what I did there?) They have improved on that one more recently, I’m glad to say, but I never did understand why they suddenly decided to call conjunctions ‘connectives’ though it seems they have now reverted to the word used by the rest of the English-speaking world.

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  3. Terminology is so often a sticking point in education – languages, maths, science etc. As regards languages, English in this case, surely it’s much more important to understand how the language works that to remember all the names of the parts. Frankly it doesn’t matter if you call it a “possessive pronoun” or a “determiner”, or even “green word”, as long as it means something to you in the scheme of things.
    In other words the label doesn’t matter as long as you know what the thing it’s attached to actually does. As long as the student isn’t going to teach the subject then an entirely independent nomenclature is fine; as long as it means something to the student. Teaching lists of grammatical terminology as if that aspect is more important than how to actually use the language is one of the most pointless wastes of time in a child’s education. If you want to take all the joy out of life and learning then teach endless amounts officially prescribed, but otherwise useless, nomenclature.

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  4. My thought about the issue. For me the pronouns “my”, “your”, “her”, “his” and “their are dual in nature. They are both pronouns and determiners. It’s just a matter of perspectives.

    Example: Michael’s mother is going to visit him tomorrow.

    His mother is visiting him tomorrow.

    Recall that a pronoun is a word that replaces a noun or a noun-substantive in a sentence. In the given example, the pronoun “his” replaces the noun “Michael”. Since the referent is in the possessive case, the pronoun to be used must agree in form with its referent. So, to avoid the awkward repetition of the possessive noun, it was replaced by the possessive form of the pronoun.

    if we are to exclude the above-mentioned words in the category of pronouns in their possessive form, then we should also be excluding nouns in their genitive structure in the noun category and call them adjectives.

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