Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm not sure of the right place to ask this, but I got confused trying to understand how the computer will interpret the sentence:

This is my picture.

In actual sense, the real owner of the picture should be the photographer not the person who was photographed... or am I getting something wrong? So, it seems the confusing thing about 'picture' is determining who the real owner of the picture is. So is there a special category for these kind of nouns or an official clarification somewhere?

Thanks

share|improve this question
3  
Wow. A fascinating question which had never before even occurred to me. –  TRiG May 14 '13 at 1:48
1  
@TRiG, which means you haven't started on a foreign language! –  Pacerier May 27 '13 at 9:48

2 Answers 2

up vote 49 down vote accepted

There is a class of noun called, interestingly, Picture Nouns. These include picture, description, story, painting, and any other noun that refers to a representation of something else. There are hundreds, and they have very peculiar syntax, because they're very peculiar semantically. All nouns are representations of something else, but picture nouns are representations of representations.

That means (using the Mind is a Container metaphor theme), that picture nouns have content, i.e, whatever it is that the picture, the description, the story, the painting, etc. represent. And that content may be referred to with the practically meaningless preposition of.

So my picture may mean

  • a picture that I own
  • a picture that I made
  • a picture that shows me

as well as many other things, not restricted to picture nouns, like

  • a picture that I sold/bought/signed/
  • a picture that I am particularly fond of
  • a picture that I mentioned in a previous utterance

Whereas a picture of Bill can only mean

  • a picture that shows Bill

while a picture of Bill's may mean the same thing, but may also mean

  • a picture that Bill owns
  • a picture that Bill made

Summary: Possessives do not always refer to ownership;
or, perhaps, ownership has more dimensions than one might expect.

share|improve this answer
1  
Wow, perfect and concise answer. Thanks! –  Chibueze Opata May 13 '13 at 16:54
13  
This is not a pipe. It's not even a sentence containing a picture noun. –  Edwin Ashworth May 13 '13 at 17:23
7  
+1 A similar ambiguity obtains with nominals representing transitive actions: John may be either agent or patient of John's murder. –  StoneyB May 13 '13 at 17:24
4  
And also, there are information objects other than pictures. "My file" could mean a file about me (like in a doctor's office) or simply a file belonging to me: a file owned be me in a computer's filesystem, but not about me. –  Kaz May 13 '13 at 20:17
2  
No, it's not syntactic; it's semantic and pragmatic. The syntax part is that my, being a Determiner, precedes the N' that it determines. It doesn't say anything about what it means. The real syntactic relation is in NP Complement clauses, which are restricted to picture nouns, and are one of the two types of Complex Noun Phrase (the other is Relative Clause) that form syntactic Islands; the Complex Noun Phrase Constraint (CNPC) is one of the Ross Constraints. –  John Lawler May 17 '13 at 22:38

Although the sentence strictly talks of the owner of the picture when the speaker says "my picture", it is a common idiom for people to say my picture to mean a picture of me.

For example:

I got my picture taken for my work pass yesterday.

We hang pictures of all of the partners outside the board room. My picture is the one to the left of the CEO's.

This is the picture of Charlie. This one is of my wife, Sandra. And this one is my picture next to the Sphinx.

Consequently "that's my picture" is ambiguous between "I own that picture" and "that is a picture of me".

There's an interesting third meaning as well; a photographer might also refer to a photograph they have taken as their picture, even if they no longer own it and if the picture is not of themselves:

I went round the New York gallery recently to have a look at their photograph exhibition, and was surprised to see one of my pictures on display in the gallery. It was a photograph I took of John Lennon many years ago that I sold to a collector for $1000 in 2008.

share|improve this answer
    
So you are of the opinion the term is ambiguous, are there any other common or similar terms? Thanks –  Chibueze Opata May 13 '13 at 16:42
4  
@ChibuezeOpata All attributive genitives - my, your, his, her, its, our, their and constructions in 's are similarly ambiguous when the noun they modify will support the ambiguity. One dimension of ambiguity vanishes when the "genitive" prepositional phrase with "of" is employed: here the case in which the object of the preposition is cast, either the genitive or the oblique (objective), is diagnostic. However, the ambiguity between legal and creative ownership remains. In any case, the meaning is usually clear from context. –  StoneyB May 13 '13 at 17:07

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.