Independent Posessive Pronouns and Object Positions1

William A. Ladusaw
UC Santa Cruz

1 Introduction

It is a classic observation of English syntax that the position of English direct objects with respect to verb particles is sensitive to whether the object is a pronoun. This pattern is illustrated by the contrast between (1) and (2):

(1) He looked the information up.
  He looked up the information.
(2) He looked it up.
 *He looked up it.

In transformational terms, the constraint is expressed as "the particle MUST move to the position following the direct object when the latter is a pronoun; otherwise the particle movement is optional." Fraser (1976: 16), following Lees (1960).

A similar constraint is evident in double object constructions, where the possibility of a dative object is precluded when the accusative object is a pronoun:

(3) She gave the book to her mother.
  She gave her mother the book.
(4) She gave it to her mother.
 *She gave her mother it.

Bolinger (1971: 39–41) notes that the constraint can be overridden by accent on the pronoun licensed by contrastive focus or deixis, so that the constraint is not absolutely determined by whether the phrase consists only of a personal pronoun.

The explanation of this pattern continues to be a topic of analysis in syntactic theory, but it remains a relatively transparent probe on whether a nominal phrase "is a pronoun." Johnson (1991: 594), for example, expresses it in the classic form: "The object of the particle verb may show up on either side of the particle, unless this object is a pronoun, in which case it must precede the particle."

This squib examines the interaction between this constraint and the independent forms of English possessive personal pronouns.

2 Independent Possessive Pronouns

English possessive pronouns occur in two forms, depending upon whether they function as determiners or independently as nominal phrases. See Wales (1966: 169ff) for discussion and references. The paradigm of standard dependent and independent forms is given in (5).

(5)1st Sg:my / mine
 2nd:your / yours
 3rd Sg:his/his; her/hers; its/its
 1st Pl:our / ours
 3rd Pl:their / theirs

The determiner forms are used in Determiner Phrases with contentful Noun Phrases. The independent forms are used when possessive meaning is appropriate but where there is no visible content in the Noun Phrase. The principal functions of the independent possessive pronouns are illustrated in (6)–(8):

(6)Postcopular possessives: The book is mine/yours/his.
(7)Postnominal possessives: She is a friend of mine/yours/his.
(8)Nominal phrase anaphora: Her dog is friendlier than mine/yours/his.

The analysis of the anaphoric Determiner Phrases like those in (8) generally treats the appearance of the independent form of the possessive pronoun as a morphological reflex sensitive to the presence of an empty Noun Phrase, which represents the anaphor. However as noted in Nerbonne et al. (1989: 281), there is a contrast between pronominal and non-pronominal possessives in this construction. While full nominal possessives allow for post-nominal complements to the anaphor, the pronominal ones do not:

(9)Your relatives from California are taller than John's (relatives) from Boston.
(10)Your relatives from California are taller than my relatives (*mine) from Boston.

It seems to be generally true that when the independent form of a possessive pronoun occurs, it must be the only content of the phrase.

3 Interaction with Object Placement

Even though independent possessive pronouns always occur as the sole content of the phrase, they do not count as "pronouns" in the sense relevant to the constraint on object placement. That is, the examples in (11)–(13) show that these forms are not weak enough to trigger the constraint discussed in the first section. (An appropriate interpretation for the anaphor must be supplied.)

(11) I didn't call up hers.
 *I didn't call up her.
(12) She looked up mine.
 *She looked up me.
(13) I sent his mother hers.
 *I sent his mother her.

This observation provides potentially relevant data to the question of what property of pronominal phrases triggers the constraint on object placement. It is incorporated into the description of the classic constraint in Svenonius (1994: 165). The data are expected under the assumption that the anaphoric cases of independent possessives are represented by branching structures, in which the right branch is an empty phrase representing the anaphoric ellipsis.

4 Pedagogical Afterword

I owe the observation of the relevance of the constraint on object placement to the treatment of independent possessive pronouns to Deborah L. Thacker, who made it in her midterm exam for my course "Modern English Grammar" in the spring term of 1989. I owe to Jorge Hankamer the inspiration to create the pedagogical context for the emergence of this novel observation by a beginning undergraduate student. He has always advocated the careful and explicit formulation of rules and principles and a focus on discovering them and their consequences—i.e. doing linguistics—the proper focus of even beginning courses for undergraduate students. The soundness of this strategy has, I believe, been confirmed many times over.


Bolinger, Dwight. 1971. The Phrasal Verb in English. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fraser, Bruce. 1976. The Verb-Particle Combination in English. New York: Academic Press.

Johnson, Kyle. 1991. Object positions. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 9:577–636.

Lees, R. B. 1960. The Grammar of English Nominalizations. Bloomington, IN. Indiana University Press.

Nerbonne, John, Masayo Iida, and William A. Ladusaw. 1989. Running on empty: null heads in head-drive grammar. WCCFL 8. Stanford: Stanford Linguistics Association. 276–288.

Svenonius, Peter. Dependent Nexus. PhD dissertation. University of California, Santa Cruz.

Wales, Katie. 1996. Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.