English uses the possessive determiner where in Italian would not use it. For example, "Take your hands out of your pockets!" is translated in Italian as Togli le mani dalle tasche! Even if I am using any possessive determiner, the phrase is understood to mean the hands of the person to whom I am speaking from her/his own pockets; if I meant somebody else's pockets, I would use the possessive, as in Togli le mani dalle mie tasche! (The highlighted phrase means "my pockets.")

Is using the possessive determiner strictly necessary with the following sentences?

Those comments are replies to my comments I deleted.

Those emails have been sent after I sent my emails I deleted.

Could I rephrase them as follows?

Those comments are replies to the ones I deleted.

Those emails have been sent after I sent the ones I deleted.

I know that I could delete comments/emails I didn't write, but could not those sentences be understood, in some circumstances?
For example, if I am talking about comments I wrote on this very site, the comments I can delete are only the one I wrote, since I am not a moderator on ELL; if I am talking about emails while I am using my computer, I am probably talking of my emails.

Is such context sufficient to avoid any possessive determiner, or does English require to always use possessive determiners?


2 Answers 2


English does use the definite article instead of the possessive adjective in certain contexts:

He hit me on the head.

She patted him on the back.

In both cases the personal pronoun is sufficient to identify whose body part was being hit or patted. Whether or not the possessive adjective is needed in sentences such as:

Those comments are replies to the comments I deleted

depends entirely on the context. If the only comments that you can delete are indeed your own and this is known to the person you are speaking to, then the definite article is fine. Conversely, if you can delete anyone's comments and the preceding exchange has not made it clear whose comments you are talking about, then you need to specify.

I agree with Jay that:

Those comments are replies to my comments I deleted

is a little awkward. It sounds more natural, in my opinion, when my and I are farther apart:

Those comments are replies to my comments that I deleted.

Those comments are replies to the comments of mine that I deleted.


It is certainly not required in English to put a possessive on any noun that could have a possessive. However, it is conventional to use a possessive on objects that are closely associated with a person, like parts of his body or the clothes he's wearing, especially when without a possessive we would have to put an article.

It would not violate any rules of grammar to say, "Take the hands out of the pockets", but that sentence would sound very strange to native English speakers. We're used to the convention that if you are talking about a person's own hands, you call them "your hands" or "her hands".

But a similar sentence using other objects might well not use possessives. "Take the food out of the microwave" or "Take the book out of the library" would not strike anyone as strange. You might say, "Take your food out of the microwave" if you want to make clear that it is the person's own food and not someone else's, or "Take the food of your microwave" if there is someone else's microwave in the vicinity. But that's normal use of the possessive: you use it when you want to make ownership clear, you don't use it if ownership is irrelevant, unknown, or if you want to de-emphasize it.

But any time you talk about body parts, you almost always identify whose: "your hand", "my foot", "Sally's face", etc. Only if you are speaking of body parts in general would you not identify who they belong to, like "The surgeon is skilled at operating on kidneys" or "The brain cannot comprehend such wonders". Even there, many general statements are made personal, like "This shampoo is good for your hair".

Ditto for clothes that people are wearing at the moment. If you said, "I spilled coffee on my shirt", we would normally understand that to mean the shirt you were wearing at the time. Similarly, "I spilled coffee on his shirt" would mean the shirt "he" was wearing. "I spilled coffee on a shirt" would normally mean a shirt that no one was wearing. (I say "normally", because in context you MIGHT mean a shirt owned by this person or that person but that they were not wearing at the time. But that would have to be called for by the context.)

Ditto for a person's home and car. English speakers say, "I painted my house yellow" if they mean their own house, not, "I painted the house yellow." Some people do refer to their own home as "the house" or "the apartment", but this is a rare usage.

You certainly can say, "Those comments are replies to comments I deleted" or "... to the ones I deleted". There's no need for a possessive there. Indeed, including the possessive makes the sentence look awkward to me. I'm not quite sure why. It's not that an adjective is inappropriate at that place. If you said, "Those comments are replied to old comments I deleted", or "... to irrelevant comments I deleted", the sentence flows fine. But "my comments I deleted" or "Bob's comments I deleted" sounds awkward to me. Anyone else here feel the same? Is there some rule this breaks?

  • 1
    In this case, my functions more like a determiner than an adjective. Compare "Those comments are replies to the old comments I deleted" with *"Those comments are replies to the my comments I deleted".
    – user230
    Commented Jul 17, 2013 at 17:41
  • Good answer but I don't entirely agree about the house... for example, I've got to spend all weekend working on the house is perfectly usual.
    – nekomatic
    Commented Sep 28, 2015 at 11:25
  • @nekomatic Perhaps "rare" was a poor choice of words. I didn't mean "almost never", but rather "less often than the alternative".
    – Jay
    Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 20:05

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .