The Grammarphobia Blog

An issue of ownership

Q: I struggle to understand why we can’t delete “own” from a sentences like this: “He worked hard to remember his own name.” Any guidance you can offer would be helpful.

A: Since early Anglo-Saxon days, the pronoun “own” has been used after possessive adjectives or nouns to emphasize possession or ownership.

The first recorded use in writing dates back to the 700s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which has a reference to his agen sunu (“his own son”).

This emphatic “own” has been in use steadily ever since. The OED‘s latest citation is from Kate Atkinson’s novel Human Croquet (1997): “How could a mother leave her own children?”

You’re right technically; a sentence like “Eliza abandoned her children” is grammatically correct and states the facts. But it doesn’t convey the same feeling as “Eliza abandoned her own children.”

The addition of  the emphatic “own” adds a value judgment that colors the entire sentence.

Similarly, “He worked hard to remember his name” doesn’t convey the same sense as “He worked hard to remember his own name.”

For one thing, the first sentence might be taken literally, as if the person has a serious case of amnesia. The second sounds like a slight exaggeration, as the speaker surely intends.

We have many other ways of using “own,” as both a pronoun and an adjective.

For example, we use it to express affection or respect, as in “my own dear Erin.”

We use it to show that we’re in full command of ourselves, as in “He’s his own man.”

We use it to underscore a previously mentioned person, as in “I prefer to do my own cooking” or “She likes to toot her own horn.”

We use it in dozens of other ways too: “My darling, my own!” … “We managed to hold our own in the fighting” … “I want a dog of my own” … “Do you live here on your own?” … “He did it on his own” … “Ralph has finally come into his own.”

It’s a versatile little word, and useful for conveying shades of meaning.

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