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?


  • 3
    Wow. A fascinating question which had never before even occurred to me.
    – TRiG
    Commented May 14, 2013 at 1:48
  • 1
    @TRiG, which means you haven't started on a foreign language!
    – Pacerier
    Commented May 27, 2013 at 9:48

2 Answers 2


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.

  • 14
    This is not a pipe. It's not even a sentence containing a picture noun. Commented May 13, 2013 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. Commented May 13, 2013 at 17:24
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    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
    Commented May 13, 2013 at 20:17
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    Of course; that's why I used description and story as examples. Basically, any noun that is made from a complement-taking predicate can behave like a picture noun; usually such nouns can also take a complement (like the story that my medical record has been lost), or a modifier referring to it (like my medical file story), in context. Commented May 13, 2013 at 20:42
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    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. Commented May 17, 2013 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.

  • So you are of the opinion the term is ambiguous, are there any other common or similar terms? Thanks Commented May 13, 2013 at 16:42
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    @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. Commented May 13, 2013 at 17:07
  • There's yet another meaning that suggests a strong connection that's not due to ownership, origin, or content. A couple might say "this is our song", even though they don't own it, didn't write it, and are not in the recording - they just have an emotional connection to it. Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 15:15

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