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Possessive nouns can do something strange
September 13, 2016

September 13, 2016


English Grammar Revolution David, Alice, and I want to share some special news with you. I'm pregnant with another little girl and due in December! We're all very excited to have a new person join our family. David and I don't have a name picked out yet, but Alice does. She wants to name the baby Flower. :)

This week, you'll learn why possessive nouns are strange and often confusing.

Happy Learning,

Elizabeth O'Brien

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Possessive Nouns Are Strange

Today, I'm answering a reader's question about possessive nouns.


    I’ve come across this situation a few times, and I can’t find an explanation.

    The old lady’s books were burned.

    What is “old?" It seems to be an adjective modifying another adjective ("lady's"), but since that’s not possible, is there another term for it? Or would we consider “old lady’s” some sort of compound adjective modifying the noun “books” and leave it at that? I’m intrigued, and any help is appreciated!

    We love your books.

    English Teacher

That's a great question! Before we dive deeper into Elyse's question, let's have a quick review of what nouns and adjectives are.

  • Nouns name people, places, things, or ideas.

  • Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.

Possessive Nouns

Possessive nouns are nouns that shows ownership. (You can also think of them as showing possession.)

Mom's keys, lady's books, building's doorbell

The keys belong to Mom, the books belongs to the lady, and the doorbell belongs to the building.

I can't find Mom's keys

Mom's is a possessive noun. It's telling us whose keys we're talking about.

Mom's is functioning as an adjective modifying the noun keys.
Isn't that strange? It's a possessive noun, but it's not functioning as a noun. It's functioning as an adjective!

Possessive nouns function as adjectives.

We even diagram possessive nouns as adjectives. (That means they go under the noun that they are modifying.)

The Curveball

Check out the sentence below and focus on the word my.

I can't find my mom's keys!

What is my modifying?

You might be confused because my is an adjective, but it doesn't seem to be modifying the noun keys. After all, they are not my keys, they are my mom's keys.

My seems to be modifying mom's, and mom's is functioning as an adjective. But wait! Adjectives don't modify other adjectives! What is going on here?

sentence diagram

Where do we diagram my? What is it doing?

The Trick

The trick is that possessive nouns like mom's and lady's can be modified by adjectives. Even though they function as adjectives, they maintain some of their "noun-ness" and can still be modified by adjectives.

Diagram my on a slanted line under the possessive noun mom's. It will look just like an adverb, but since you're smart, you'll remember that it's actually an adjective modifying a possessive noun.

sentence diagram

Dear Elyse

    Hello Elyse,

    Old is modifying lady's, so it's an adjective modifying an adjective! The trick is to think of lady's as a possessive noun that maintains some of its "noun-ness" even though it's acting as an adjective. It's "noun-ness" makes it able to be modified by adjectives. Diagram old under lady's

    I hope that helps. I'm happy to hear that you're enjoying our materials! Thank you for letting me know.


There you go. Now you know that possessive nouns function as adjectives, but they can also be modified by adjectives. Crazy!

Would you like to learn more,? You'll find these pages helpful.

Are you an educator? Feel free to use this information with your students.

About Elizabeth

English Grammar Revolution

Elizabeth O'Brien is founder of, a company devoted to helping people learn and love grammar.

Through her website, books, and programs, Elizabeth shows people how to teach and learn grammar the easy way. She's on a mission to inspire and motivate people by making grammar fun and friendly.

If you liked today's issue, you'll love Elizabeth's grammar and sentence diagramming programs, which will help you learn or teach grammar through simple, step-by-step instructions and sentence diagrams.

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