French Grammar

The Possessive in French -

Expressing possession and attribution



Different ways of expressing possession in French

Possession can be expressed in French, as in English, in a number of different ways. Like English-speakers, the French use possessive pronouns, possessive adjectives and prepositions designating possession or attribution. The biggest difference is that there is no French equivalent of the apostrophe s structure that is very common in English.

1. Possessive adjectives

These correspond to the possessive adjectives that are used in English, my, your, his, her etc. However they are not used in the same way. Like other adjectives, possessive adjectives agree with the noun they qualify (i.e. not with the possessor as in the case of his / her in English
Forms: Singular Plural
1st mon ma mes notre nos
2nd ton ta tes votre vos
3rd son sa ses leur
Examples
J'aime mon chat.
   I love my cat
Je ne connais pas son père mais je connais sa mère
   I don't know his/her mother, but I know his/her father
Il ne parle jamais à ses soeurs
   He never speaks to his sisters.
Notre voiture est en panne.
   Our car's broken down.
Il a mangé toutes nos pommes.
   He's eaten all our apples
Ils sont très en colère; quelqu'un a volé leur voiture.
   They're very angry, someone's stolen their car.

2. Possessive pronouns

These correspond to the possessive pronouns that are used in English, mine, yours, his, hers, its etc.  Like the possessive adjectives, they agree with the noun they stand in place of (i.e. not with the possessor as in the case of his / hers in English). 
Important: unlike other pronouns, possessive pronouns include an article - the definite article.
Forms: Singular Plural
1st le mien la mienne
les miens les miennes
le nôtre la nôtre
les nôtres
2nd le tien la tienne
les tiens les tiennes
le vôtre la vôtre
les vôtres
3rd le sien la sienne
les siens les siennes
le leur la leur
les leurs
Examples
Je vois plusieurs voitures, mais je ne vois pas la mienne.
   I can see several cars, but I can't see mine.
La plupart des enfants sont partis, mais les tiens jouent encore.
   Most of the children have left, but yours are still playing.
Ma valise est rouge, mais la sienne est noire.
   My suitcase is black, but his / hers is black.
Mon chat est noir, mais les vôtres sont gris.
   My cat is black, but yours are grey.
*** Remember: you must use the full possessive pronoun, including its pronoun. You can't say C'est mien for "It's mine. It has to be C'est le mien.

3. Possession indicated with a preposition

3.1. When the possessor is a noun...
When two nouns are linked by a relation of possession, as in the English expressions my brother's friend or the friend of my brother, French has to use a preposition, normally de, but sometimes à.  There is no French equivalent of the English 's (apostrophe - s ) structure.
   This applies to real possession as in my brother's car and also to attribution, as in the president's arrival, or the top of the hill
In cases of attribution, the corresponding proposition in English is not necessarily of, but may be by, or some other preposition
In most cases, the preposition of possession is  de.  A is occasionally used, notably in colloquial French. 
Examples
Je ne connais pas l'ami de mon frère.
   I don't know my brother's friend / the friend of my brother.
La voiture de la dame était en panne.
   The lady's car had broken down.
Je cherche la maison de Monsieur Dupont.
   I'm looking for Mr Dupont's house.
Le plus célèbre roman de Zola est Germinal.
   Zola's most famous novel is Germinal /
      The most famous novel by Zola is Germinal.
L'oncle à Pierre lui a donné un beau cadeau.
   Pierre's uncle gave him a nice present.
A qui est ce livre?  C'est à Sarah.
   Whose book is this?  It's Sarah's.
3.2. De and à implying different meanings
While de and à are interchangeable in many cases, there are other cases in which they imply different attributive relationships between two nouns.
Une tasse à café does not mean the same as une tasse de café.
Une tasse à café means a coffee cup, a cup in which coffee is served.
Une tasse de café means a cup of coffee.
In other words  à implies purpose, while de implies content.

3.3. When the possessor is a pronoun ...
In cases of possession where the possessor is designated by a personal or relative pronoun , not a noun, the only preposition that can be used is à.  
The structure à + pronoun is found essentially in what the French call "compléments déterminatifs". In this particular case, the complement is rendered in English by the use of a possessive pronoun.
  This structure is occasionally used for emphasis or to remove ambiguity.
Examples
A qui est ce livre?  C'est à moi.
   Whose book is this ? It's mine.
Il voyait trois chiens, mais il ne voyait pas son chien à lui.
   He could see three dogs, but he couldn't see his own dog.
Je connais Pierre et Marie, et je connais sa soeur à elle
   I know Pierre and Marie, and I know her sister.  (Without adding the à elle, we do not know if it is Pierre's or Marie's sister)
L'oncle à Pierre lui a donné un beau cadeau.
   Pierre's uncle gave him a nice present.

In cases of attribution where the main entity is designated by a personal or relative pronoun, French cannot express this using a simple preposition + a pronoun. Other solutions must be found.  For example there is no parallel in French to the English expression "I'll get to the bottom of it".
Examples
Il escalade la falaise, et il va aller jusqu'au sommet.
   He's climbing the cliff, and he's going to go to the top of it.
Regardez les tableaux, puis choisissez(-en) les meilleurs.
   Look at the paintings, and then choose the best of them.
Le livre était assez ennuyeux, mais il y avait quelques bonnes parties.
   The book was rather boring, though some parts of it were good.
Seulement les meilleurs d'entre nous vont réussir.
   Only the best of us will succeed

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