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I'm trying to tell the difference between possess and own.

According to the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries, possess is more formal than own and means to have or own something.

To my mind, although we can use possess with a quality or a feature, when it comes to owning or possessing physical objects, they mean the same thing.

So, am I correct? Are there any objects we own but don't possess?

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    What do dictionaries say? What are their definitions? You should be sharing your research in your question.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 22 at 11:09
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    Links in Q please. There is no mention of formality in CD's entry for "possess" dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/possess Your analsis is mistaken, no one is suggesting that possess is more formal than own.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 22 at 11:44
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    It says that possess is "formal" and you assumed it means it's more formal than "own", it isn't. The verb "own" is not informal.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 22 at 15:01
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    I was totally owned by my son the last time we played Mario cart.
    – James K
    Commented May 22 at 20:45
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    You can own a cat, but if it doesn't want to be possessed by you then you are in for a world of trouble!
    – nigel222
    Commented May 23 at 10:26

5 Answers 5

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My dictionary gives several definitions for "possess". One is that it is a synonym of "own". Another is "to have as a quality", like you can "possess great musical talent".

But a third is "to have under one's power or control". For example, suppose that I let my friend borrow my cell phone. I still own it, I didn't give it to him. But he is carrying it around and using it. He "possesses" it.

We rarely use "possess" to mean "own", but that's a valid definition. Like I'm far more likely to say, "I own a car" than "I possess a car." But we do say, for example, "He possesses great wealth." We sometimes say it when we want to emphasize the power or control. Like, "He possessed 100 slaves."

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    @anIELTSlearner Another situation in which there would be a difference of course would be theft or dispute. If someone steals my cell phone, they possess it, but I own it. There's a legal saying, "possession is nine tenths of the law." Meaning if I then take the thief to court and he says it's really his, the court is likely to believe him instead of me, unless I have proof, since he possesses it. Commented May 22 at 12:33
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    Why is that example a problem? To me it fits perfectly. The example can mean either (1) "I own this suitcase (I bought it and have the receipt)" (Jay's definition #1) or (2) "This suitcase is the only one under my control" (It's the only one I can find anywhere in the house) (Jay's definition #3) Commented May 22 at 19:38
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    @PeterKirkpatrick For example, if you are going through customs, you might only have (possess) one suitcase with you. They don't care about the other dozen suitcases you own back at home; they're not in your possession right now. Commented May 22 at 22:10
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    They can be used just fine as synonyms, but there is a useful distinction if current control over the thing and right of title to the thing differ.
    – Jed Schaaf
    Commented May 23 at 8:42
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    @Lambie You're right, I never meant to suggest that there was one. I was making a more general statement in response to An IELTS Learner's comment that dictionaries do not always reflect full nuances in actual usage in part because there are regional differences (even inside the US for that matter). I should note that some more comprehensive dictionaries note some regional differences, but many don't even try. Commented May 24 at 0:13
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Take a look at the following quote from langeek.co

'Own' is used more commonly with tangible items such as property, vehicles, and businesses, and indicates exclusive legal ownership of such items. 'Possess', on the other hand, is used more commonly with intangible items such as skills, qualities, and attributes.

You can own items, businesses, etc., but you can't own skills. You can only possess skills, however you can use the word possess for ownership of items as well.

Examples:

  • I own a small business.
    • (Not 'I possess a small business')
  • I possess some skills in coding.
    • You can't 'own' skills as if you have bought them, you 'possess' them.
  • The museum possesses an extensive collection of ancient artifacts.
    • Here, the museum does not 'own' the ancient artefacts, rather, it has them at its disposal and offers them as exhibit.
  • The company possesses a large portfolio of patents.
  • The university possesses a state-of-the-art research facility.

To specifically answer your question if you are correct or not, you're not completely right, but there are cases where you can use them interchangeably.

Hope this helps!

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    +1 You can also possess something you don't own e.g., through borrowing or theft.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 22 at 21:01
  • digital currency; even just money in a bank, if you don't have the bills on hand
    – Alex
    Commented May 23 at 3:55
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In English legalese (the version of English which words may have different meanings when used by lawyers), own and possess are two distinct concepts which are only tangentially related. For example, you can own a car. If you use your car (for example drive it), then at that moment it is also in your possession (you are said to also possess the car). But if someone steals your car, then they now possess your car (it is in their possession). But you still own the car, not the thief. Usually, if an object that you own is not in your possession without your own knowledge or consent, then some one has likely stolen that object from you. Neither of these terms are a formal version of another, but separates the concept of "having" an object in theory (own) and "having" an item in fact or practice (possess).

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  • So when talking about car ownership, should I write "The number of people in the UK who possess a car has increased"? Commented May 23 at 3:55
  • In English legal terminology, there are kinds of property that you can own but not possess (patents, credit in a bank account etc). You can also lend an object to someone. You still own it, they possess it. In a family it is quite possible for one person to own a car and another to use it on a regular basis. Hopefully you can see how this works. Commented May 23 at 12:27
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    @anIELTSlearner if you are taking about car ownership, then use the word own. Very few times are you going to talking about possession because in normal circumstances, ownership implies possession.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented May 23 at 13:23
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    The funny thing about cars is that a lot of people (in the UK) lease their car - if they want a new one anyway. Then they possess it but they don't own it (as opposed to buying it on a finance deal or with a loan, when they do own the car)
    – Chris H
    Commented May 23 at 14:58
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    @Lambie Yes? That's what the answer says.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented May 24 at 0:48
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"Own" implies legal ownership. If you "own" something, then it is your property. You can possess something without owning it by stealing it or borrowing it.

"Possess" is a very formal word. You would normally say "have" instead. "Possession" is much more common, and it's easier to see a difference between the "possession" and "ownership".

"Possession is nine-tenths of the law", but it's not legal ownership.

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    own is not more of a legal term. However, it is true you can possess something without owning it.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 23 at 21:17
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    "Possess" is also a legal term. It is used when the law forbids "possession" of illicit drugs. If you borrow someone's car, or rent it, then you "possess" it but don't own it, since it is under your control. Your possession has legal consequences, e.g. when deciding who must pay for damage caused in a car accident or must pay a fine for illegal parking. Commented May 24 at 17:16
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If you own something, you can (legally) sell it. It may be here, it may be somewhere else. You may or may not have use of it at the moment if you're loaned it or rented it to someone else, but it legally belongs to you and you hold power over it.

If you possess something, you can use it. It is probably in your hands or on your person, though it also applies to things like skills and knowledge (since you can use them, but you can't sell them). There are times that we'll talk about possession for things that aren't so close at hand-like the house I possess but do not own.

I am renting my house. I possess the house and am able to make use of it as I wish, but I cannot sell it as I am not the legal owner. My landlord owns the house, but he does not possess it. He's not allowed to come in and sleep here, but he could sell the house to someone else. There are some things that people commonly possess without owning (cars, if they've leased them. Houses, if they're rented. Passports and certain official documents, which are legally owned by the government or issuer but used and possessed by the person they are issued for), and some things that are commonly owned without being possessed (intellectual property, for example).

However, usually, possession implies ownership and ownership implies at least potential possession, so the difference between the two often doesn't matter and they are sometimes used interchangeably. If we're looking to move something and I ask if you own a truck, I don't really care if you properly own the truck or lease it or whatever-I care whether you can bring a truck to help move the stuff. In my experience, "own" tends to be more commonly used, or "have" can be used (somewhat informally) in situations where both are acceptable.

If you're looking for a rule, consider what what's being emphasized. Legal ownership? Use own. On hand, not saleable, or just able to be used? Use possess. Don't care, and are willing to be a touch more informal? Use have, which is acceptable in almost all cases that own or possess would be.

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