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I was sitting on a couch between the wife and the husband of an old married couple (native English Londoners) and they were showing me pictures of their kids. They kept using phrases like

here is my son during his holiday

my daughter is the first person from the right

It took me some time before I realized they had been speaking about the children they had together. In my language I would for sure have used our.

The question is:

Is it OK (or even preferable?) to use my in situations where the "co-owner" is sitting next to me, like when talking about our common kids or about a house we both own together?

There is a similar question "Our team" or "My team"? but I think it covers slightly different use case.

I am aware that English uses possessive pronouns much more often than many other languages, often just as a form of article. When you say I am wearing gloves on my hands you probably do not intend to emphasize your ownership of that pair of hands (in many languages the translation can get by without the my, it even sounds redundant).

Could it be that in the connection my son the possessive pronoun my is perceived as rather just a complement needed just for grammatical correctness of the sentence, and not the actual expression of the possession?

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    You should use our. It's less ambiguous; it's more polite to the "co-owner", and there is nothing grammatically wrong with it. But if somebody uses "my" instead of "our", it doesn't mean that they are the sole "owner"—and you're probably right that this is because possessive pronouns are used often enough in English that they don't carry the significance they do in other languages. – Peter Shor Dec 4 '15 at 16:26
  • I would agree with both the question and @PeterShor comment. I have had this discussion with my wife as we both will say "my" when referring to OUR children, home, bedroom, etc. It has gotten to the point where it is an inside joke. – Skooba Dec 4 '15 at 16:40
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    @PeterShor would you consider to elaborate your comment into an answer? – Honza Zidek Dec 6 '15 at 21:51
  • @Skooba: can you be more specific? You say you refer to your common children as to "my children" and you find it somehow funny? You find it correct or incorrect? – Honza Zidek Dec 6 '15 at 21:52
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    @HonzaZidek I find it to be incorrect to use "my". – Skooba Dec 7 '15 at 17:22
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Yes, as Peter Shor mentioned in a comment (that he should expand into an answer IMO) the proper pronoun to use is our.

I'm sure the people in your story are smart people, so why would they use my instead? In my opinion there are several reasons why they might use my instead of our.

  • I talk about my children using pronouns more frequently when I'm not directly next to my wife. As such my slips out easily and naturally even when I'm next to my wife.
  • My brings the object closer to the speaker. I think my kids are awesome so using my lets me take more credit for their good qualities. This is reflected by the distancing parents occasionally do when their kids misbehave; "Erik look what your son just did!"
  • It might be a subtle sign of favoritism. If you notice that the dad always says my son and the mother always uses the son's name or our son when pointing at a picture. That would imply to me that the dad wants a closer association with the son than the mom.
  • It might be something distinct to Londoners. I'm an American from rural California so I wouldn't know.
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Yes, it's okay to use "my" for the simple reason that it's not incorrect. It might be incomplete, and there are many weak signals that you might infer from the choice.

As for what's more appropriate, shifting from "my" to "our" is more appropriate when the other person is involved in the conversation rather than just being nearby. I can imagine that with you between them, they might each have felt as if they were in a dyad conversation with you - maybe it would have been different if you were in a chair facing them.

Anecdote: For the last five years, I never use "our" when referring to my boys, even if their mother is in the room with me. Post-divorce, I no longer feel joint-"ownership" of them in the sense of a collective, shared experience parenting them.

Alternatively, if "my" doesn't work in context, I will refer to them as "the boys," since I do not want to imply anything that "our" would. The technical biological "our-ness" is understood by everyone: I want to limit it to that except when I'm deliberately signaling unity as a rhetorical tool.

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