Articles before possessive ’s

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

Students who are unsure whether to use the definite or the indefinite article before a noun often try to camouflage this by using possessives. For example, instead of:

I borrowed a book.

they may say something like:

I borrowed Peter’s book.

and there is no need to think about whether the borrowed item is “a book” or “the book”. The reason why there is no article in the latter sentence is that Peter’s replaces it in the very same way as possessive pronouns do; we could also say “I borrowed his book”, for example.

However, there is a catch. Some students, lured by the absence of articles after a possessive and the fact that there are no articles before proper nouns, mistakenly believe there are never any articles at all around possessives.

In fact, articles are used in the same way before possessives as before any noun that doesn’t have an ’s. We don’t say “the Peter’s book” simply because we don’t say “the Peter”, but “teacher” is always either “a teacher” or “the teacher”, so we would say:

correct He borrowed the teacher’s book.
wrong He borrowed teacher’s book.
correct Sometimes a student can be a teacher’s nemesis.
wrong Sometimes a student can be teacher’s nemesis.

Since we usually don’t use articles before mass nouns, we wouldn’t use them before the possessive form of a mass noun either. Note, however, that in this case it is much more common to use the construction “of X” instead of “X’s”:

correct Soap enhances the cleaning ability of water. (most common)
correct Soap enhances water’s cleaning ability. (possible)
wrong Soap enhances a water’s ability to clean.

Finally, care should be taken when using established phrases with possessives, which often lack the article although it would normally be used, for example:

Could you please say it in layman’s terms?

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.