Use of possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns

It was in the news last week that a privately owned dam in Solai, Nakuru County, burst and destroyed villages along an estimated 5km stretch that, unfortunately, lay in the path that the water, having escaped restraining walls, created. The devastation was horrendous to say the least, especially considering that the calamity happened at night and, as fate would have it, power supply was cut off.

Media accounts reported variously that ‘Solai dam in Nakuru bursts its banks’, ‘Solai dam bursts’ and ‘Solai Patel dam breaks its walls’. Besides agreement on the number of the dead, what was destroyed and the usual recriminations following such disasters, two things stand out from the construction of the sentences.

First is the question whether a dam can burst its ‘walls’, ‘banks’ or simply ‘bursts’. Second, the proper use of the words ‘it’, ‘its’ and it’s arises.

‘Bank’, unless the word is being used in the noun form to specifically refer to a financial institution (Central Bank of Kenya, Equity Bank, Kenya Commercial Bank, National Bank and so on), or in the verb (expressing occurrence, the state of being, action or activity), is also associated with rivers. River bank therefore refers to the land on either edge of a river.

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Adversely affected

When Tana River burst its banks recently, thousands of people living along its course, but particularly in Garissa County, were adversely affected as their houses were submerged. Note that the word ‘either’, as is ‘neither’, applies when referring to two things or people.

If there are more than two things involved, the correct words to use are ‘any’ or ‘none’. It would be wrong to say “Neither of the three government institutions can escape blame in the Solai tragedy”. The place of ‘neither’ should be taken by ‘none’ (none of the three government institutions can escape blame in the Solai tragedy).

Ideally, dams have walls, either built using a mixture of cement, concrete and metal, or the earthen edges that remain after excavation. Part of the dictionary definition of a dam is: "... a barrier constructed to hold back water and raise its level, forming a reservoir used to generate electricity or as a water supply." In extreme situations therefore, dams either burst or the walls simply break due to structural weaknesses.

‘Bank’(s) should not be used in relation to dams.

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Let us briefly look at the use of some of the common pronouns applied in the Solai tragedy. We will not delve deeper, for indeed, the scope of pronouns is truly wide and deep. The use of ‘it’, ‘its’ and it’s is tricky when one does not pay particular attention to spelling in the course of writing. It is even trickier for those who use computers when the auto correct function is activated.

Apostrophes, possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives are used to denote ownership. While the possessive form of ‘girl’ is ‘girl’s (but even here there is the additional challenge of using ‘girls’), and that of ‘cat’ is ‘cat’s’, it does not follow that the possessive form of ‘it’ is ‘it’s’. Well, at some point as the English language evolved, it might have been, but not today.

Correct form

As it stands, the correct possessive form of ‘it’, unlike in the examples provide above, is ‘its’. It’s (written with an apostrophe) is the contraction (shortened) form of ‘it has’ and ‘it is’.

‘Its’, ‘his’, ‘your’, ‘her’, ‘our’, ‘we’, ‘my’ and ‘their’ are possessive adjectives that alternately serve as possessive pronouns. Possessive adjectives, however, describe a noun in a clause, showing who something belongs to.

For instance “My house is atop that hill over there”. More importantly, possessive adjectives are used in the same form (unchanged), whether plural or singular. For example, “My cars are all painted grey’’. “My car is painted grey’’

On the other hand, possessive pronouns not only subsequently take the place of a noun in a sentence to avoid repetition (Juma loves taking strolls in the evenings. He normally takes his pet dog along), they are also used to show ownership, just like possessive adjectives do.

The major difference is that while the possessive adjectives come before the noun, the possessive pronouns come after, not before the noun. For example, “The grey car belongs to her”.

Note also that possessive pronouns are written without apostrophes, except the word 'one’s' (one is, one has).

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard; [email protected]

possessive pronounsadjectivespronouns