Like other adjectives, possessive adjectives describe the nouns they modify. However, possessive adjectives do so by indicating who owns or possesses a person or object. The owner is referred to as the possessor and the noun described by the adjective is the person or object possessed.
English Possessive Adjectives
The singular and plural possessive adjectives found in English are:
1st person: my, our
2nd person: your, your
3rd person: his, her, its, their
These possessive adjectives are used to indicate who possesses a noun in a sentence. For example:
Let’s go to my house.
Let’s go to your house.
Let’s go to his house.
Notice that the possessive adjectives (my, your, and his) are describing the noun (house) by indicating the possessor of the house. However, English has a quirk when it comes to discussing possessive adjectives in the third person (his, her, its, their). There is ambiguity whether the adjective is reflexive (refers back to the subject) or whether the adjective is indicating an entirely different possessor. Take the following sentence for examples:
John is walking to his house.
Notice that the possessive adjective “his” may be referring to John or it may be referring to any other male person. To clear up this ambiguity, English speakers often employ the word “own” to indicate that the possessor is also the subject of the sentence. For example:
John is walking to his own house.
Mary saw her own horse.
Notice that now there is no ambiguity as to the owner of the house. This kind of possessive adjective is known as reflexive because its meaning is reflected back to the original possessor of the person or object. Possessive adjectives that do not reflect back their meaning to the original possessor are logically called non-reflexive.
Latin Possessive Adjectives
Latin reflexive possessive adjectives also indicate to whom a person or object belongs. However, as an inflected language, Latin possessive adjectives must agree with the noun they modify in case, number, and gender. This is similar to how other Latin adjectives function. For example:
Caesar suam urbem superavit.
Caesar defeated his own city.
Notice that although “Caesar” is a masculine noun, “suam” has a feminine form to agree with the noun it modifies “urbem” in case, number, and gender. This often seems strange to Latin students that the reflexive adjective can be feminine when it refers back to a masculine subject. To keep it straight, always remember that an adjective must agree with the noun it modifies in case, number, and gender regardless of any other information you may have about the gender of any other nouns in a sentence.
Non-reflexive possessive adjectives function a bit differently from their reflexive brethren. To indicate a non-reflexive Latin possessive adjective, use the genitive case of the personal pronoun. Recall that the personal pronoun “is, ea, id” has the same genitive singular form for all three genders (eius). For the plural forms, the masculine and neuter genders have the same form (eorum) and the feminine has its own form (earum), although it is similar to the masculine and neuter form so it is easy to recognize. Take the following sentences for example:
Caesar eius urbem superavit.
Caesar defeated his (her/its) city. (literally, Caesar defeated the city of him/her/it).
Notice that since “eius” is a non-reflexive possessive adjective, “his” refers to someone else’s city other than Caesar’s. Non-reflexive possessive adjectives are easy for beginning Latin students because they already know the genitive case as the case of possession. For example:
Urbs Caesaris magna est.
Caesar’s city is large. (literally, The city of Caesar is large.)
Latin has fewer ambiguities than English because Latin tends to have different inflections for every grammatical use of a word. This makes Latin difficult to learn for English speakers but is what makes it so precise and unambiguous. Learning to embrace Latin’s preciseness (and its complexity) makes Latin much like putting together a puzzle. Translating from Latin to English often necessitates the translator to add prepositions, helping words, and other elements to make the sentence as clear as possible. Learning to add these elements properly is just another part of learning proper Latin grammar. A strong background in English grammar can only help the Latin student.