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Tea and Grammar Part 4: Possession

Ireland's highest mountain
This is a view from Corrán Tuathall, Ireland’s highest mountain. It’s in County Kerry, Ireland

Welcome to the fourth installment of “Tea and Grammar,” in which I help you demystify some of those grammatical terms that get thrown at you when you’re learning a language.

If you’re like a lot of adult language learners, you may never have learned these terms in school (or, if you did, unless you’re a teacher or an editor, you’ve probably forgotten them).

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It can be pretty intimidating, then, when you start running up against technical “grammar talk” in a language learning course (and trust me: you will). It’s grammar, after all, that tells you how the language works.

So, pour yourself a cup of tea, grab a package of Mikados, and get ready to learn a little about “possession.”

What is “possession”?

If your idea of “possession” includes images from The Exorcist, we need to clear up some terminology first.

In grammatical terms, “possession” refers to a special relationship between two things. Frequently this means that one thing owns another, for example:

  • This is my new car— The car belongs to me. I own it.

It doesn’t HAVE to imply ownership, however. For example:

  • That is John’s house. — John may well own the house. Then again, he may rent it. Or perhaps it belongs to his parents and he lives there with them. Maybe he’s just squatting there and has no legal right to be there at all. It doesn’t really matter. For our purposes, it is John’s house.
  • He is Mary’s son. — Obviously Mary doesn’t own the boy, but they have a particular and unique relationship; therefore he is her son, and she is his mother.
  • That was my bus! — I don’t own the bus, but it was the one I was intending to catch…and I’ve just missed it!

It can even refer to a particular attribute that something or someone “possesses”:

  • That dog’s fur is black. — The dog has fur, and that fur is is black. Most dogs have fur, and many have black fur, but we’re talking about the specific fur that is attached to this specific dog.

So, to sum up, in grammatical terms, when we talk about possession, we’re neither talking about being inhabited by demons nor NECESSARILY about ownership, but about a particular relationship between one thing and another.

How do we indicate possession?

There are lots of ways to indicate a particular relationship between one thing and another. For example, if we want to get very wordy (not to mention awkwardly specific) we could say something like:

  • This is the new car that belongs to me.
  • That is the house in which John lives.
  • He is the male child that Mary bore (or adopted).
  • That is the bus I meant to catch.
  • The fur on that dog is black.

While we may occasionally have the need to be this oddly explicit, in most cases we choose a simpler way of indicating these relationships. These are:

  • Possessive adjectives
  • The genitive (“possessive”) case
  • Possessive pronouns

Let’s take a look at each of these one-by-one.

Possessive adjectives

We talk about these a little in Tea and Grammar — Part 2: Adjectives and Adverbs. If you haven’t already, you may want to take a look at that post before proceeding.

An adjective, you may recall, is a word that “modifies” (i.e., adds information to) a noun. A noun is a word that represents a person, a place, or a thing (we talk about nouns in Tea and Grammar — Part 1: Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs).

A “possessive adjective is a word that tells you who or what is in a “possessive” relationship to a particular noun. In English, the possessive adjectives are:

  • My
  • Your
  • His
  • Her
  • Its*
  • Our
  • Their

My car. His house. Her son. Its fur.

Possessive adjectives in Irish are similar, but they’re a little more complex. For one thing, Irish uses the same word (a) to mean “his,” “her,” and “their.” Like a lot of European languages, Irish also has different words for “your” singular and “your” plural.

Bitesize Irish Gaelic members can learn about possessive adjectives in Irish in Lesson: Possession: Using Possessive Adjectives and Lesson: Possession: More About Possessive Adjectives.

* NOTE: Be very, very careful with “its.” Often people incorrectly write this possessive adjective with an apostrophe — “it’s” — probably because we use apostrophes to show possession with nouns.  

Well, those are nouns; this is an adjective, and it DOES NOT take an apostrophe. In fact, “it’s” with the apostrophe  actually means “it IS.” Remember:“Its” is as possessive as “it” gets!

The genitive (“possessive”) case

If you haven’t studied much language, “case” may be an unfamiliar word to you. In its simplest terms, “case” is a special form of a word that’s used to show its relationship to another word. Usually, when we’re talking about “case,” we’re talking about nouns.

We don’t tend to encounter this term a lot when we’re talking about English because English words don’t always change significantly to indicate “case” (other languages are a different story! If you really want to encounter grammatical “case,” try taking Latin!)

English words DO change, however, in the genitive (“possessive”) case. To make an English  singular noun (or an English plural noun that doesn’t end in “s”) possessive, you add apostrophe + s to the end of it:

  • The house where John lives becomes John’s house.
  • The son that Mary bore becomes Mary’s son.
  • The teacher of the children becomes The children’s teacher.

English plural nouns that end in an “s” simply have an apostrophe added to the end:

  • The house belonging to the Millers becomes The Millers’ house.
  • The food the dogs eat becomes The dogs’ food.

The genitive in Irish is a bit more complicated, with its form being dictated by a variety of factors. Bitesize members can learn more about the genitive case in Lesson: Possession: Introducing the Genitive Case and Lesson: Nouns: Finding the Genitive Form.

Possessive pronouns

In Tea and Grammar — Part 1: Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs we learned that “Pronouns” are short words that we use instead of a noun.

A possessive pronoun takes that concept a little further: It takes the place of TWO words. One of those words is a noun, and the other is the person or thing who “possesses” that noun.

In English, the possessive pronouns are:

  • Mine
  • Yours
  • His
  • Hers
  • Its
  • Ours
  • Theirs

For example:

  • My [possessive adjective] + car [noun] becomes mine.
  • John’s [genitive noun] + house [noun] becomes his.

Irish is interesting in that it doesn’t actually HAVE possessive pronouns.  There is no single word in Irish that corresponds to “mine,” “yours,” “ours,” etc.

Instead, depending on the circumstances, you have a couple of choices, including using a possessive adjective with the word “ceannsa” (an emphatic form of a word meaning “one”) and using an emphatic form of the preposition “le” (“with”).

  • Is é mo cheannsa: It’s mine
  • Is liomsa é: It’s mine


Just another way to make language more efficient!

All this is much less intimidating when you think of it in terms of making language more efficient. Imagine if we didn’t have these ways of indicating possession! We’d spend half the day describing the relationships between various things!

For myself, I’d rather have another cup of tea. Please pass the Mikados!

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6 thoughts on “Tea and Grammar Part 4: Possession”

  1. I’m curious how would you go about implying ownership in a name? In English you’d add an S like Minihan’s, Shanahan’s, McCartney’s ect, what is the Irish equivalent?

  2. This seems like a good place to ask about something that confuses me with Irish possessives. ‘A’ means ‘his/her/their’… Except that sometimes it seems to mean ‘my’ as well? Like in “Stór, A Stór, A Ghrá”. Why does that song title not translate into the third person?

    I’m very new to the language, so I’m sure I’m missing something very basic, but I can’t figure out what.

  3. I loved the way you explain things with humour.
    It’s very engaging.
    I am a very late learner to Irish having discovered recently I am 100% Irish.
    I am trying to understand how the language is constructed and wrestling with that and pronunciation