I had a sort of debate with my teacher to whether the her in the sentence

A mother takes care of her children.

is a possessive or an objective pronoun.

I told my teacher that it was a possessive pronoun, as the mother had ownership of her children, but she told me it was an objective pronoun as it had preceded a preposition, making it an object of the preposition.

Which one should be correct, or, should both be considered?

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    Possesseve. Whose children? Her children. – Armen Ծիրունյան Jan 30 '15 at 11:47
  • From Wikipedia: Object pronoun In linguistics, an object pronoun is a personal pronoun that is used typically as a grammatical object: the direct or indirect object of a verb, or the object of a preposition.... Object pronouns in English take the objective case.... For example, the English object pronoun me is found in "They see me" (direct object), "He's giving me my book" (indirect object), and "Sit with me" (object of a preposition).... – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '15 at 11:54
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    @EdwinAshworth So is it a possessive or an objective for you? – ThatStudentWoah Jan 30 '15 at 11:55
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    In 'Her mother takes care of her', her is an object pronoun. In 'Her mother takes care of her children', her children is now the prepositional object (or arguably the direct object of the multi-word verb 'take care of'); 'her' is a possessive pronoun within this structure. Try substituting 'him' or 'his', which don't overlap so confusingly in usage (though deletions are possible in some contexts). // Be nice to your teacher. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '15 at 12:26
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    "as it had preceded a preposition" -- you probably mean "as it had a preceding preposition." – Kris Jan 30 '15 at 12:42

A mother takes care of her children.

The Original Poster is correct. The word her here is a possessive pronoun in determinative function. The complement or object of the preposition of is the noun phrase her children. The head noun in the noun phrase is children and the determinative is her.

The possessive pronoun her and the object pronoun her are homonyms - they look identical. However, it is easy to test if this is the possessive or object pronoun. We can simply substitute father for mother and see whether the corresponding word is the possessive pronoun his, or the object pronoun him:

  • A father takes care of his children. (possessive pronoun)
  • *A father takes care of him children. (ungrammatical: object pronoun)

This shows that the determinative in her children must be a possessive pronoun here.

Hope this is helpful!

Note: The term object pronoun is not very helpful. It tends to imply that the pronoun needs to be the object of something to be in this case - which isn't true. Accusative case pronoun is a better term, imo.

  • Homonyms or [semi?-]intercategorial polysemes? (I've seen claims for both.) – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '15 at 12:56
  • @EdwinAshworth I don't know. I'd go with the latter - but as I said, what do I know? ;-) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 30 '15 at 13:39
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    Wikipedia classes possessive pronouns as one subclass of determiners (though I agree that the traditional term possessive pronoun is better ditched). CGEL is not the final word. Like nasal ventilation, apparently. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '15 at 14:06
  • @EdwinAshworth I'm secretly in league with those people who don't believe that determiners and pronouns are separate parts of speech! (like Abney, or Dick Hudson, for example). But sshh, don't tell anyone! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 30 '15 at 14:10
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    There are many recognised subdivisions (I'll avoid precise set terminology) of determiners. The Wikipedia article on English determiners lists a good many. Some of them could not possibly be called pronouns, though together they form a cohesive grouping. They are very different in function from almost all classical adjectives. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '15 at 14:13

TL;DR: The word her in “A mother takes care of her children” is neither a possessive pronoun like mine nor an object pronoun like me; it is a possessive determiner like my.

Just because something immediately follows a preposition does not mean that that thing must be an “object” form. For example:

Give the prize to whoever comes in first without cheating.

That’s a subject form not an object form, even though it immediately follows a preposition, because it’s its job in the entire clause that matters, and the object of that preposition is the entire clause.

Similarly in your case:

A mother takes care of her children.

There her is a determiner, not a pronoun. For her to be used as the object of the preposition of, you would need something more like this, in which case her really is a pronoun now, not a determiner:

Her father takes care of her.

The object of the preposition is the noun phrase her children, with her a possessive determiner. This is not a substantive use because it cannot stand in for a noun. You cannot say:

She’d like to see some of *my.

The reason that is starred as illegal is because my is a possessive determiner, not a possessive pronoun. Here is an example of a possessive pronoun serving as the object of a preposition:

She’d like to see some of mine.

For your situation, the actual possessive pronoun corresponding to the subject she is hersnot her, which is not a possessive pronoun at all, merely a determiner or object form.

An example of actual possessive pronoun use of hers is:

When Billy wanted to help Sarah with her homework, he would do hers as well as his own.

Tables for Clarity

English pronouns are pretty confusing for several reasons. One is that some forms serve multiple functions, especially in the third person forms. Wikipedia offers a simple table of these:

Wikepedia pronoun table

As you see, several forms span multiple columns, meaning that the same spelling works for multiple functions. Furthermore, the reflexive / emphatic forms ending in self are sometimes derived from possessive determiners and other times derived from object pronouns. All this can be very confusing to learners.

When you add in archaic, nonstandard, and dialectic forms, which you will nonetheless from time to time encounter, the picture becomes even more confusing. Wikipedia offers another table immediately below that one, but it is too large to reproduce here.

Instead, let me flip the axes around and fill in the forms that occupy more than one position. This should make it easier to understand for some people’s learning styles, because now you have the various forms corresponding to a particular person lined up in an easy-to-read column.

         (Click on table below to embiggen.)

English personal pronouns, part deux

Note that I include only the forms you are apt to encounter in normal use. I have omitted nonstandard and dialectic forms to simplify matters, as well as the archaic second-person plural pronoun ye, which while originally a subject pronoun came to be used as an object pronoun, too. I have also omitted the most common impersonal pronoun set: one, one’s, oneself.

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    So in your table of pronouns it lists possessive determiners as a type of pronoun. So I'm wondering whether those are pronouns or determiners? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 30 '15 at 15:23
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    @Araucaria It all becomes clear when you check AHDEL, Collins and RHK Webster's at the FreeDictionary. One says pronoun, one says determiner. One says adjective! But I'd say many grammarians would go with determiner now, in spite of AHDEL. Also, CDO has 'We use apostrophe s (’s), also called possessive ’s, [to indicate] a determiner to show that something belongs to someone or something: Is that Olivia’s bag?' – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '15 at 15:58
  • @EdwinAshworth Yes, it's an interesting kettle of fish. I've got to rush off to work now, will that chat room still be open tomorrow by any chance? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 30 '15 at 16:00
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    Possessives are determiners; they fit into the Determiner phrase, which hasta come before the Adjectives, which hafta come before the noun, which hasta come before the post-nominal modifiers: np[ [Eighteen or twenty of his] [weary, bedraggled, and filthy] retainers [who had stayed with him all this way] ]np vp[dismounted]vp._ – John Lawler Jan 30 '15 at 16:33
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    Probly I shoulda speld it hæstə. – John Lawler Jan 30 '15 at 21:32

The discussion only arises because English grammar uses the term object not only as sentence part (objects after verbs) but unfortunately also as term for word groups (object after a preposition). In my view, a use of the term object which only leads to confusion.

As to me, "her" in "her children" is a possessive adjective and it is totally irrelant whether "her children" is preceded by a preposition or not. If you choose another term for the noun after a preposition, e.g. preposition complement then the discussion is pointless.

In all my life I haven't found it necessary to have a special term for the noun following a preposition. According to my definition you can place a preposition before a noun to get secondary indications (where, when etc). Of course, there are cases where a preposition is followed by other word classes but in almost all these cases you can insert a noun to get the full formula.

  • The cat appeared from under the couch ( from her place under the couch).

Added: Actually I find the original question totally confusing because there are several things intermingled.

1 What word class is "her" + children? Traditionally "her" is a possessive adjective, and not a pronoun. The possessive pronouns are used without noun and are mine, yours, his, hers etc.

2 What case follows after a preposition? In English there is only one answer: an accusative (direct object). In English this becomes clear only with personal pronouns: for him, to them, about us. But I think it makes no sense to ask which case is "her". You would ask: A mother takes care of whom? Answer: of her children/ of them. So the whole noun group "her children" is an accusative or object case. Subject case would not make sense. But one can't say "her" alone is in object case.

For me this absurd question is a paragon to show how simple structures can be made a problem.

If one would try to answer this question reasonably the answer should be

1 "of her children" is possessive case

2 After the preposition of follows "her children", which is object case.

3 and "her" belongs to the word class possessive adjectives.

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    English grammar uses the terms "object of a preposition", "direct object", and "indirect object"; all are noun phrases and they have some similarities, but they are not identical. If people decide to use only the word "object" for any of them, without discriminating types, and become confused because of that decision, it is not the fault of "English grammar". – John Lawler Jan 30 '15 at 16:29
  • This is nothing to do with English. Prepositional objects are objects in German, Italian, Chinese, and Zulu as well. And there is no real difference, systematically, between the object of a verb and the object of a preposition. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 31 '15 at 11:15
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Hmm, don't understand that point that well (probly because am being dumb!). Why is the complement of a preposition more like an object than a PC or Locative Complement? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 31 '15 at 12:45
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    @Araucaria Well, it’s not, really. Systematically, I’d say those are ‘objects’, too, with ‘object’ being at an abstract level basically just another way of saying ‘complement’ or ‘argument’ (though I would have to admit that the subject argument of a verb seems somehow different). Both clauses, verbs, and prepositions can have them, in varying forms. Direct/indirect/prepositional object are terms given to particular types of ‘objects’ (complements), but by itself, ‘object’ really means no more than ‘complement’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 31 '15 at 12:50

Note the contextual significance of the pronoun:

A mother takes care of her children

(takes care, phrasal v.) --> (of, prep.) --> (her children, object of v.)
children is the object, not her, which merely qualifies the object
As such, her is the usual possessive pronoun here.


Her mother takes care of her

(takes care, phrasal v.) --> (of, prep.) --> (her, object of v.)
her is the object, the objective pronoun, in the oblique/ accusative case.

There may be a reason why the teacher considered it otherwise, the OP could get it clarified.

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