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"He led her by the hand."

"I hit him in the jaw."

"She closed her eyes."

In the first two examples one doesn't say "her hand" and in the second one doesn't say "his jaw". But in the third one says "her eyes" and not "the eyes".

Is there a rule governing the choice between "the" and the possessive forms?

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    I feel like this question or a related one has been asked and answered on here before, but I can't find it. We do tend to prefer "the" in the first two sentences, although "her" and "his" do work, respectively. – GoldenGremlin Oct 23 '16 at 21:44
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    Notice that it's clear that the first one means her hand. You couldn't say "he led her with the hand"; you need to use his. – Peter Shor Oct 23 '16 at 22:30
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    Your two examples using the definite article are prepositional phrases, and tending towards set phrases. in the teeth / face / stomach, behind the knee, between the toes, on the head, under the chin ... follow this pattern. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 23 '16 at 22:33
  • @EdwinAshworth : Maybe you should make your comment an answer. – Michael Hardy Dec 31 '16 at 16:53
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    I'm not prepared to spend ages looking for authoritative endorsement, and my comment is basically a variant on 'because we do' anyway. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 31 '16 at 17:48
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In the first two sentences, the subject has already been identified and therefore a generic pronoun is sufficient for further identification. This method is also useful in preventing repetition.

The sentence "He led her by the hand" sounds much better to our ears than "He led her by her hand". We know that is "he" is leading "her" so we have a visual image of what is taking place. The further information "by the hand" is actually technically unnecessary in sentence and thought completion but the phrase adds intimacy to the image. It is just a detail that adds to the reader's mental image of the scenery. In this sentence we see a man gently leading a woman to a special date, or a nice dinner. If the sentence would have been "He led her by the arm", we would have a different mental picture. Perhaps "He" was a policeman who had just arrested "her", or perhaps he was an abusive husband. The intonation changes with each example. The same is true for "I hit him in the jaw". We envision a fight between two men. If the body part were changed, such as "I hit him in the arm" we picture it more as a friendly, brotherly type of hitting interaction.

The third example you use is different because no subject has been identified. If you were to say "She closed the eyes" we would naturally assume that "she" was closing the eyes of another subject instead of her own eyes. The pronoun "her" adds identity to which eyes she closed and is necessary for sentence interpretation. Other sentences which follow this pattern might be "He rested his legs on the sofa." "He" wouldn't be resting someone else's legs on the sofa in common sense. "She bit her tongue after she spoke." "She" most likely would not be biting the tongue of another person after she spoke, meaning she wished she could take back what she had said.

  • Hi @Valarie Weinhaus, Nicely well-detailed answer. ELU prefers answers which demonstrate a degree of research effort. Providing citations in support of your answer will improve its effectiveness in terms of this site's requirements. Thanks! – freeling10 Feb 9 '17 at 3:22
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"I hit him in his jaw"

"I hit him in jaw"


In OPs example the word 'his' is redundant; though it serves to qualify a noun (jaw), it does not contribute any meaning to the sentence. It does not qualify the word 'jaw' any further by its use; since 'jaw' as the object hit is already known uniquely from the context.

So in the second sentence, which omits the redundant 'his' - no meaning is lost by the omission -( unless 'I hit him in his brothers jaw' is semantically correct.)

The second sentence however is ungrammatical as; the definite article 'the' has to be used since the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be unique. Duly carrying out the rectification - gives us the sentence "

"I hit him in the jaw"


Note: Why is it that we can not have the first sentence in the OPs example as a grammatically correct sentence-with a redundancy, why does the use of 'the' become obligatory or at least take precedence over 'his' (as @silenus observes) : I am yet to come across a redundant use of possessives in English prose or of adjectives in general; while redundancy may be allowed or mandated otherwise.

  • I don't see that this addresses the question. – Michael Hardy Jan 26 '17 at 23:09
  • If you are looking for a rule it can well be that a possessive is not to be used when it has been made redundant ,with the fact of possession already implied by the verb used in conjunction with the pronoun in question. – ARi Jan 26 '17 at 23:23
  • But that fails to explain why one says "She closed her eyes." – Michael Hardy Jan 26 '17 at 23:30
  • The verb 'close' together with the pronoun 'She' does not automatically imply that the object on which the verb acts; will be possessed by the person referred. It could be 'She closed the door'. Contrast this with { 'Pat' Verb, 'Her' Pronoun} pair ( with preposition 'on') can one come up with any object not belonging to 'Her' : 'I patted her on the head' – ARi Jan 26 '17 at 23:50
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Well, In these cases,the action is performed on a 'third person'. It doesn't matter where you place the word 'his' or 'her'. Because in such sentences it is clear that the action is performed on a third person. For eg. If you say that, "I hit him in the jaw." OR "I hit in his jaw." , both of them are interpreted the same. Both of them mean that you've hit the respective person's jaw. Hence, it doesn't matter where you use the indicator(him,his,you,your,mine,me,etc.). The meaning of the sentence won't change.

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    You cannot say "I hit in his jaw" because that is not English. – tchrist Oct 27 '16 at 10:45
  • English is a non-pro drop language - you can not drop the pronoun 'his'. as @tchrist observes above. ..... in pro drop languages it is perfectly valid to have sentences of the form ' I hit his jaw' all the more so when verbs in these languages; with no guarantee of a pronoun being present =---have developed a usage where in they refer directly to the object of their action. – ARi Jan 26 '17 at 19:26

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