The Grammarphobia Blog

Is your spouse possessed?

Q: I am concerned about the possessive connotation of referring to one’s spouse as “my wife.” Is there a reasonable substitute for “my” in this context? I am curious as to your views.

A: We could come up with some clunky substitutes, but we don’t see any reason for avoiding the word “my” in referring to a spouse.

In fact, we wouldn’t describe the pronoun “my” as a possessive in phrases like “my wife” and “my husband.”

A better term would be “genitive,” a case that includes the possessive as well as many other kinds of relationship, as we’ve written before on our blog.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would label “my” in the phrase “my wife” as a “genitive pronoun” rather than a “possessive pronoun.”

In such a phrase, according to Cambridge, the genitive “my” acts as a “determiner,” a word or phrase that determines the context of the noun that it modifies.

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, the Cambridge authors, say that in the sentence “My father has arrived,” the word “my” is a “subject-determiner,” a genitive construction that gives the subject context—that is, it describes whose father has arrived.

Huddleston and Pullum suggest that in a sentence like that, the word “my” may combine both “the syntactic functions of determiner and subject”—that is, it may be acting as a subject as well as a modifier.

The authors add that this analysis is “justified by a significant structural resemblance” between such genitives and the subjects of clauses.

We could go on, but the Cambridge Grammar is heavy going. Let’s just say that you shouldn’t  worry about referring to your spouse as “my wife.” Yes, she’s yours, but you don’t possess her—genitively speaking.

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