When you're learning French an important aspect of the language is expressing who or what things belong to. And to be able to do this, you need to know about French possessive adjectives.
In English, these are small words we use every day without ever giving them much thought, like “his”, “their” or “my”. Even though they're small, they're pretty significant for fluency as we use them all the time.
The same goes for French of course. But as a French learner, you need to understand how French ones work because they’re not quite the same as in English.
To help, in this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know to start using French possessive adjectives correctly and with confidence. By the end of this post, you'll be speaking French with more flair than ever thanks to these small but mighty words.
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What’s An Adjective Anyway?
Let’s start right at the beginning. What’s an adjective?
Adjectives are “describing” words that we use to describe nouns (things).
For example, in English, words like “big”, “small”, “fat”, “thin”, “red” and “intelligent” are all adjectives. We use them to describe nouns, like this:
- a red book
- a small house
- five fat toads
And so on.
Adjectives In French
In French, adjectives work slightly differently from their English equivalents. First, they usually (but not always) come after the noun rather than before it.
Second, they agree with the noun in number and gender. This means the form of the adjective can change depending on whether the noun it describes is masculine or feminine, singular or plural.
For example, take the French word for “green”, vert.
There are four possible forms, depending on the noun it describes:
- un livre vert (a green book)
- deux livres verts (two green books)
- une table verte (a green table)
- deux tables vertes (two green tables)
Not all adjectives have four forms. For example, rouge, the word for “red”, is the same for masculine and feminine. The only difference is that you add an ‘s’ for the plural, like this:
- un moulin rouge (a red mill)
- deux moulins rouges (two red mills)
- une table rouge (a red table)
- deux tables rouges (two red tables)
So what are possessive adjectives? Possessive adjectives are the words we use to say who something belongs to.
For example, in English, we can say “my book” – “my” is an adjective that describes the book as belonging to me.
Here are some more examples:
- your sister
- his idol
- their nightmare
Possessive Adjectives In French
Possessive adjectives in French are a little more complicated than in English because, like other French adjectives, they change their form to agree with the noun they are describing in both number and gender.
This means that there are several versions for each when in English, we have only one.
Here they are in full:
As you can see, only the first three have separate masculine and feminine forms. The others are the same, regardless of the gender of the noun they describe.
In French, like in English, possessive adjectives are placed before the noun, like this:
- mon sac (my bag)
- ta valise (your suitcase)
- leurs livres (their books)
French Possessive Adjectives And Agreement
As I just mentioned, French possessive adjectives, like other adjectives in French, agree with the noun they describe in number and gender.
The important point to remember is that they change their form to agree with the noun they are describing and not with the person or thing possessing it.
So, if we take the examples we’ve just seen, we say mon sac because sac is masculine. But just from the adjective, we don’t know whether the person who owns the bag is male or female.
Similarly, when we say ta valise, we use the feminine form of the adjective because valise is a feminine noun. However, this doesn’t tell us anything about the gender of the suitcase’s owner.
It doesn’t matter if the person we are speaking to is male or female – we still use ta.
In the same way, if we say leurs livres, we use leurs because livres is plural – the gender of the people we are speaking to is irrelevant.
Third Person Singular Forms
Perhaps the most confusing aspect concerns the third person singular forms.
In English, the third person singular possessive adjectives are “his”, “her” and “its”. And they tell you whether the “possessor” is male, female or non-human.
However, in French, the possessive adjective doesn’t give you this information because, as we have seen, it agrees with the thing possessed and not with the person or thing possessing it.
For example, when we say son frère (frère means “brother”), we use son, because frère is masculine. But from the possessive adjective, we don’t know whether the person whose brother we are talking about is male or female.
Son frère can be translated as “his brother” or “her brother” (or even “its brother”, but I’ll say a bit more about this in a moment).
When we say sa sœur (his/her/its sister), we use sa because it agrees with sœur. But it doesn’t tell us about the gender of the person or thing whose sister it is.
Similarly, ses frères and ses sœurs tells us that we are talking about multiple brothers or multiple sisters. But from the possessive adjective, we can’t tell the gender of the person whose brothers or sisters they are.
In most cases, if we say son sac, we know whether son refers to a male or female from the context. For example, if we say Jean a oublié son sac, “Jean forgot his bag”, son refers to Jean, a male.
In fact, the gender of the person we are referring to is irrelevant – what’s important is that we know that son refers to Jean.
However, sometimes it can be helpful to specify whether you mean “his bag” or “her bag”. To do this, you can add à lui when you are speaking about a male or à elle when you are speaking about a female, like this:
- son sac à lui (his bag)
- son sac à elle (her bag)
This is not usually necessary, so let’s try to think of a situation where you might need to use it.
Imagine that four friends – John, Jane, Bob and Barbara – are playing a board game, and John asks Jane whose turn it is.
In English, Jane could just reply “it’s his turn” to indicate Bob or “it’s her turn” to indicate Barbara – because “his” refers to a male while “her” refers to a female.
However, in French, this wouldn’t work because c’est son tour doesn’t tell you the gender of the person you are referring to. In this case, you might say c’est son tour à lui if it was Bob’s turn or c’est son tour à elle to indicate Barbara.
As you can see, this is a little contrived, and you won’t need to use it often because it’s usually clear who you’re talking about from the context. But on those occasions when you do need to specify, this is how you do it.
How To Say ‘Its’ In French
Above, I mentioned that son frère can also mean “its brother”, so now let’s say a few more words about expressing “its” in French.
In English, we use “its” when we want to say something belongs to a non-human thing. For example, if we are talking about a bird, we might say “its nest”. Similarly, we can say “its colour” to talk about the colour of a car.
In French, though, nouns are not categorised as either “people” or “things” like in English, they are only categorised as masculine or feminine.
This means in French, it doesn’t matter if you are talking about a human or non-human “possessor”, all that matters is the grammatical gender of the thing possessed.
So for example:
- son nid (its nest)
- sa couleur (its colour)
This is because in French, nid (nest) is masculine but couleur (colour) is feminine. It doesn’t matter that birds and cars are not human – French doesn’t make this distinction.
In a different situation, son nid could also be translated as “his nest” or “her nest”, and the meaning is usually clear from the context.
Impersonal Form – ‘On' & Possessive Adjectives
In informal spoken French, the pronoun on almost always replaces nous. This pronoun is the equivalent of the English impersonal pronoun “one” – as in “one is not amused” – but in French, it usually just means “we”.
When it is used to mean “we”, the corresponding possessive adjectives are notre and nos. For example:
- on a perdu notre chemin (we’ve lost our way)
- on a perdu nos portefeuilles (we’ve lost our wallets)
However, when used impersonally like the English “one”, you should use son/sa/ses, for example:
- perdre son chemin (to lose one’s way)
- il ne faut pas oublier ses bonnes manières (one shouldn’t forget one’s manners)
Possessive Adjectives Before Vowels & Mute ‘h’
The final point to note about French possessive adjectives is that for reasons of sonority, mon, ton and son are used with feminine nouns that begin with a vowel or a mute ‘h’.
- mon idée (my idea)
- ton odeur (your smell)
- son amie (his/her/its (female) friend)
- son haleine (his/her/its breath)
This change is just to make it sound more natural – a bit like the difference between “a” and “an” in English. But it doesn’t affect the gender of the noun or the rest of the sentence in any other way.
A little Complicated At First – But Not Too Hard
French possessive adjectives might seem a little complicated at first. But that’s only because they work differently from possessive adjectives in English.
However, it’s not too difficult to understand their logic. And once you work it out, with a little practice, you’ll find you are quickly able to use them naturally and without having to think.
As French possessive adjectives come up so often in the language, it won't be long before you get used to using them. The key, as always is to immerse yourself in French whether that's through reading in French or listening to French.