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French Grammar

How to Understand French Possessive Adjectives

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis on April 24, 2012

To understand French possessive adjectives, you need to focus on the thing you are describing.
If you are describing your dog, what matters is whether this dog is a girl or a boy, not that you are a girl or a boy!
Once you’ve understood that, it’s not that complicated.

This is particularly hard for English speakers since in English, you choose the possessive according to the gender and number of the subject:

  1. for a man, his dog(s),
  2. for for a woman, her dog(s).
  3. or for a couple, their dog(s).

The gender or number of the dog does not matter in English. It’s the gender and number of the owner that matters.

1 – For French Possessive Adjectives, Focus on the Dog!

In French, it’s exactly the other way around… What matter is the number and gender of the dog(s), not the owner!

So, when talking about a woman, you’d say “son chien” (her male dog). It’s counterintuitive, it sounds weird in English, but it is correct in French.

You have to change your focus. In French, you need to focus on the dog!

Learn more about possessive, demonstrative, interrogative and regular adjectives and master their tricky pronunciation in my audiobook about French adjectives.

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French Possessive adjectives have a Double entry logic :

2 – Choose the Correct French Possessive Adjectives

First, you need to choose the correct possessive form according to the subject (the owner).

Who owns the dog?

  1. je – mon, ma, mes (my)
  2. tu – ton, ta, tes (your)
  3. il / elle – son, sa, ses (his / her)
  4. nous – notre, nos (our)
  5. vous – votre, vos (your)
  6. ils / elles – leur, leurs (their)

Note: the possessive for “on” depends on the meaning of on. It can be “son, sa, ses” or “notre, nos”.

3 – Agreements of the French Possessive Adjectives

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Then you choose the correct possessive adjective according to the gender (feminine or masculine) and number (singular or plural) of the object (the word that comes AFTER the possessive adjective = in my example, the dog!)

My dog can be:

  1. ¬†“mon chien” for one masculine dog,
  2. “ma chienne” for one feminine dog,
  3. “mes chiens” if I have several dogs.

So there are¬†several¬†possible French translation for “my dog(s)”.

You cannot just consider the “my” part: you need to consider the following word:

  1. Is-it singular or plural?
  2. Feminine or masculine?

The speaker gender and the number of people speaking do not affect the gender/number of the possessive adjective.

In other words, let’s say that we are talking about one male dog.

  • “Anne” would say “mon chien” (not ma chienne), because she has one male dog (the fact that Anne is a woman doesn’t count at all).
  • “Sophie and Anne” would say “notre chien” (not nos chiens), because the both of them only have one dog, and again, what counts is the quantity of dogs, not that Sophie and Anne are girls or plural.

If you can build reflexes on this double entry logic, you’ll master the possessive adjectives.

So Focus on the dog :-)

French Possessive Adjectives

Of course, it took an easy example. A living being.

But remember that in French, every word has a gender… A book is masculine, a table feminine. Happiness is masculine but joy is feminine… You need to know the gender of the word you are describing to choose the correct possessive adjective in French.

  • Le livre de Sophie = son livre.
  • La table de Patrick = sa table

I understand it’s not easy. Practice does it though.

So now let’s go further with French possessive adjectives.

4 – Watch out for ses and leurs

This is a mistake I hear too often: “ses chiens” to say “their dog(s)”.

  1. Ses chiens = his/her dogs – refers to a 3rd person singular ; he or she.
    Your choice is among sa, son, ses + chien/ne(s)
  2. Leurs chiens or leur chien= their dog(s) Рrefers to 3rd person plural Рthey.
    Your choice is among leur and leurs + chien(s)

5 – Watch out for the “Mutant”¬†French Possessive Adjective

When a feminine word starts with a VOWEL or a mute H, you won’t use “ma, ta, sa” BUT “mon, ton, son” (the masculine form) for a reason of pronunciation – to avoid a clash of vowels

In other words, dont’ say “ma amie” but say “mon amie” with a strong liaison in N [mon Namie].

“Ma amie” is a jaw breaker. Try to say it out loud: you’ll see, it’s not comfortable. So it’s a lazy mouth rule :-)

Same goes for “ton auto” (your car), “son √©cole” (his school)…

6 – French Possessive Adjectives Never Take Elision

M’, t’, s’ stand for me, te, se, reflexive pronouns, never possessive adjectives.

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