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Here is a question that may be ridiculous, but I was curious if there is an answer other than, "That's just how it is."

A student of mine wants to know why he/him/his is not consistant with she/her/hers.

My answer was that "hims" sounds bad.

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A better way to list the forms might be "he/him/his/his" and "she/her/her/hers". The key difference is in the attributive possessive form.

English makes a distinction between attributive and predicate forms for the possessives. When the possessive is attributive (directly modifying a noun), you use a shorter form:

This is my computer.
This is thy computer. [archaic]
This is his computer.
This is her computer.
This is its computer.
This is our computer.
This is your computer.
This is their computer.

However, when the possessive is a predicate (being applied to the noun with a linking verb), you use a longer form with an additional letter:

It is mine.
It is thine. [archaic]
It is his.
It is hers.
It is its.
It is ours.
It is yours.
It is theirs.

As you can see, the predicate form is usually the same as the attributive form plus -s (with "mine" and "thine" being remnants of a different pattern).

So to answer your original question: "his" and "its" don't change, since they already end in an -s. The extra -s doesn't make any difference and leaves them looking the same in the attributive and predicative.

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To a certain extent, it really is just "because the language developed that way." If you look at modern German, it still has the -s ending for genitive (possessive) for masculine and neuter and uses the -r ending for feminine. It uses -m for dative for masculine and neuter and feminine again takes -r. This is essentially the same as the endings as used in Old English pronouns:

  • Male N: hē / A: hine/ D: him / G: his
  • compare to er / ihn / ihm /seiner
  • Female N: hēo / A: hīe / D: hire / G: hire
  • compare to sie / sie / ihr /ihrer

"she" showed up by the time we got to Middle English:

  • Male: N: he / A: hine / D: him / G: his hisse
  • Female: N: sche[o] s[c]ho ȝho / A: heo his hie hies hire / D: heo his hie hies hire / G: hio heo hire heore

As you can see, the masculine (he/him/him/his) has not changed much since Old English, but she/her/her/hers has changed rather more.

Over time, the Accusative (direct object) and Dative (indirect object) pretty much got combined and the Accusative form got dropped.

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  • The etymology is very helpful. It satisfies my curiosity, and should be relatively easy to explain to my student. Thanks! – Semaj Oct 22 '15 at 5:32

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