When to be possessive?

Interacting with many people expands students vision and broadens their horizons.

This is a tricky one! There are many exceptions to the guidelines that follow. First of all let’s compare the following noun phrases:

  1. students vision
    plural noun + noun – is not possible. It is grammatically incorrect.
  2. students’ vision
    plural noun + possessive + noun is possible, meaning particular vision – the vision of the group of students under discussion. This structure is common when the first noun is ‘animate’.
  3. student vision
    singular noun + noun – is also possible, meaning a kind of vision – ‘student vision’ as opposed to, say, ‘teacher vision’. This structure is common when the first noun is ‘inanimate’.

Returning to our opening example, meaning 2 would appear to be the most appropriate:

  • Interacting with many people expands students’ vision and broadens their horizons.

Notice also that we now have a parallel structure with two clauses containing possessives – expands students’ vision, broadens their horizons.

A ‘he’ or a ‘she’?

What a cute baby! Is it a ‘he’ or a ‘she’?

Ok so I admit that occasionally we might not recognise somebody’s gender. But when their gender is obvious then we need to use the right pronoun, at least when we’re taking an exam!

Many languages, including Bahasa Indonesia, use non-sexist pronouns. And many languages use the same pronoun for subjects and objects, and even for possessives! It’s hardly surprising that students find English pronouns challenging, but for IELTS they have to be right!

Some yukky theory:

subject object possessive
he him his
she her hers
it it its

Ok now fill the gaps with suitable pronouns!

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The human’s wife is an alien

In my opinion, artificial intelligence should be kept away from humans’ civilisation.

OK, here are two specimens – a human (Bill), and an alien (Zarka). If I talk about the human, I’m talking about the gentleman on the left. If I talk about the alien, I’m talking about the lady on the right.

Bill and Zarka

We can say that the human’s nose is longer than the alien’s nose, and the human’s neck is thicker than the alien’s. Also, since the alien has no body hair, we can assume that the alien is interested in human hair.

Let’s look at the grammar.

  • I use the possessive when I’m talking about a particular human (Bill) or a particular alien (Zarka). I could also be talking about a specific group of humans or aliens.
  • On the other hand I don’t use a possessive when I’m talking about all humans (their hair). The alien is interested in the phenomenon of hair as it grows on all humans, everywhere.

When you’re using ‘human‘ as a noun modifier, stop and think! Are you referring to an individual human or a specific group of humans? Or are you talking about all humans? Only add the possessive if your reader knows exactly which human (or specific group of humans) you are referring to.

Pronunciation by George

flag-of-indonesia Indonesians hate to add ‘s‘ to plurals, possessives and third person verbs. In Bahasa Indonesia these grammatical features are produced in other ways.

It’s also extremely unusual in Bahasa Indonesia to see two or more consonants together, which is often what happens when you add ‘s’ to the end of a word:

  • Mike’s (possessive, 2 consonants together)
  • expands (third person, 3 consonants together)
  • texts (plural, 4 consonants together!)

Pronouncing this final ‘s‘ is difficult for Indonesians and for some reason embarrassing, rather like when English people attempt to pronounce the French ‘r‘.

But if you want to communicate well, and if you want a good score for pronunciation in IELTS speaking, then you had better start producing the ‘s’ at word endings!

In this video, former student George does his best to put ‘s‘ in all the right places. I’ve added a scoring feature to help you follow his ‘performance’!

A good way to practice ‘s‘ is to record yourself, and then listen back following a tapescript. Focus on the ‘s‘ in particular. Exaggerate it. Make it longer and louder. In the IELTS test make sure the examiner can hear it!