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How do I say something like "my company," "my plane," "my bus", etc. without making it sound like I own the company/plane/bus/etc?

"Our company" makes it seem like both me and the person/people I'm talking to own the company together.

40

It is acceptable to say something like, "My plane/bus was late" or "My company was sold" without sounding as if you own them. It would be considered unnecessary and cumbersome to say, "The plane/bus I was on was late." or "The company I work for was sold."

Typically, people will know you don't own any of those things, and if there's any question, people will ask.

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    "My" has a VERY wide range of meaning. It can range from "my boot" to "my God". – Nelson Aug 29 '16 at 1:18
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    I think the exception is "The company I work for." Consider "My company went bankrupt." vs "The company I work(ed) for went bankrupt." – TecBrat Aug 29 '16 at 9:50
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    I presume @nelson is alluding to C.S. Lewis's book "Screwtape Letters", in which a demon, discussing how demons try to confuse people, says "We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun - the finely graded differences that run from 'my boots' through 'my dog', 'my servant', 'my father', 'my master', and 'my country' to 'my God'. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of 'my boots', the 'my' of ownership." – Jay Aug 30 '16 at 1:28
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    @TecBrat "My employer went bust" is the short unambiguous formulation. – nigel222 Aug 30 '16 at 11:03
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    For the two different situations, you would say "My company ws sold", or "I sold my company". I hope nobody has a story like "my employer went on holiday, got kidnapped, and was subsequently sold". – gnasher729 Aug 30 '16 at 23:13
27

Addressing the more general case, it's important to note that possessive pronouns don't necessarily imply ownership, possession (nor does the Saxon genitive 's, despite what it says in that link).

Often, it just implies some kind of relationship, connection. For reasons that aren't clear to me, teaching materials for non-native speakers frequently over-emphasize the "ownership" relationship (and make too much of the fact that we're slightly less likely to use 's after "inanimate" nouns - despite clear evidence that the car's engine, for example, is far more common than the engine of the car).


Regarding OP's specific context, I'd say it's a "non-problem". Native speakers don't simply assume My company went bankrupt implies the speaker owned the company, unless context favours that interpretation (as opposed to it just being the company the speaker used to work for).

But in the unlikely event that both interpretations are possible in a "non-interactive" (written) context, a considerate writer could easily disambiguate by using the company that I owned / that I worked for.

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    I started learning English many years ago in elementary school and I still feel guilty when I use 's after an object... thank you for confirming that it can be done. :D – Andrea Lazzarotto Aug 28 '16 at 18:40
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    @AndreaLazzarotto: please feel guilty when using 's in German. Many people do, because they know it from English, but in German it's just s not 's – Thomas Weller Aug 28 '16 at 22:42
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    I think I never mentioned German... I don't know that language. – Andrea Lazzarotto Aug 28 '16 at 23:22
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Possessives -- words like "my" or "our", or use of apostrophe-s -- do not necessarily indicate ownership. They just indicate a close relationship. No fluent speaker assumes that it means ownership.

If you say "my boots", yes, you probably mean that you own them.

But it's quite common to say, for example, "my country", and no one takes that to mean that you own the country. Rather, you mean the country where you live.

A slave will refer to "my master". He certainly doesn't think that he owns the master. It's rather the other way around. :-)

If you said, "My plane was late", listeners would normally understand you to mean the plane that you were riding on, not that you own the plane. Unless you had just been discussing the fact that you owned an airplane.

There are cases where it could be ambiguous. If you pointed to some clothes and said, "this is my uniform", do you mean that you own the uniform, or that the organization owns the uniform and has directed you to wear it? If you say, "my company", do you mean that you own the company or that you work for the company? Etc. Usually it will be either be clear from context or irrelevant. "I get a lot more respect when I wear my uniform": it probably doesn't matter whether you own it or not, the point is just that you wear it. If you say, "My company fired me yesterday", you almost surely don't mean "the company that I own". But, "I have decided to sell my company", you presumably own it. "My company produces widgets": without some context to make clear, that could mean you own it or it could mean you work there. It may or may not matter to the listener.

7

As others have pointed out, "my company" will usually be interpreted the way you intend based on context. If you don't feel that that's clear enough, then the other usual way to phrase this is

the company I work for

I regularly use this phrase, rather than the ambiguous "my company", but not always.

4

"The" works for transport: "the plane was late, I missed the bus".

I think it works for "company" in most circumstances. "The company sent me to Alaska". "Careful with the car seats, it belongs to the company".

Some dialects go further in this direction and use "the" where "my" would be unambiguous. There are people who will refer to "the wife", although this feels a bit antiquated and working-class. Never "the husband", perhaps "the old man" instead.

And Myles na gCopaleen had his great series of anecdotes in the Irish Times about "the brother", meaning his brother. But that usage feels very Irish-specific.

  • "The" is the definite article, which specifically refers to the single item that is being discussed, regardless of relationship. "The company" is a very detached way to refer to my source of income (or I work for the CIA ;) ). "The wife" means the only one that I have. ("The husband" could legitimately be used this way as well.) "The old man" is a somewhat rude or very familiar way to refer to either one's own father or the father of one's children. "The brother" can mean either "my only brother" or "the brother of mine that I have been discussing". – Jed Schaaf Aug 29 '16 at 16:54
  • "The company" is even more ambiguous than "my company". Unless you have just specifically named a company, there is no way of knowing which company (out of the millions in the world) you are referring to. Do the car seats belong to the company that made them? A car seat rental company? The company I work for? The company you work for? Did you win a trip to Alaska, and that company paid for your trip? Did the CIA do so? This is all as opposed to "my", which limits it to a company with which you have a personal connection - either ownership or employment. – tubedogg Aug 30 '16 at 5:11
2

"Our" company/bus/plane?

I use "our" to describe such things. Eg:

  • "Our" company is hiring engineers
  • "Our" bus was late
  • There were snakes on "our" plane
  • This car is "ours" (my dad's car; the family uses it)

It's a simpler way to say that you are somehow related to the thing/object/whatever, but it doesn't belong to you (or you aren't the sole owner of the thing).

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    So you have just changed the problem/ambiguity to its plural form. – Alan Carmack Aug 29 '16 at 10:51
  • @AlanCarmack ...or made it less ambiguous...? – Zul Aug 29 '16 at 12:35
  • My partner and I own a company, and I am also employed by a different company. Our does not make this less ambiguous. I usually say my employer if I feel there might be confusion. – ColleenV parted ways Aug 29 '16 at 14:03
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    @ColleenV: In this case, I agree. "My employer" sounds right here. – Zul Aug 29 '16 at 14:14
2

Try a substitute, such as:

  • "My employer.."
  • "The company.."
  • "The company I work for.."
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    Welcome to ELL! ELL is for people who are learning English: it's not just about providing the right answer, but about explaining why the answer is write, and backing it up with references. – JavaLatte Aug 29 '16 at 21:59
  • While I think this answer would be much improved by some explanation and elaboration, it does answer the question and I don't think it should be deleted. – ColleenV parted ways Aug 29 '16 at 22:12
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    explaining why the answer is write - or more accurately: "explaining why the answer is right". – Nick Gammon Aug 29 '16 at 23:26
  • Kudos to @JavaLatte for irony and levity! – P. E. Dant Aug 29 '16 at 23:41
  • @NickGammon Ooooooops. My bad. You can't edit comments, so it will remain forever as a blot on my escutcheon. – JavaLatte Aug 30 '16 at 7:31
0

If speaking, rather than typing, intonation is key.

If you slightly stress "my", it will sounds like you own the company.

Both words equally stressed is ambiguous, and will tend to be interpreted by the listener depending on their perspective.

Stressing the word "company", though, is more likely to give the impressions you want.

It's not guaranteed, as there are many factors. But consider intonation and stresses when you respond.

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