Wiktionary has one the definitions of possession as ownership, which I agree that as a simple verb, I posses is tantamount to I own, have. However, the phrase "in one's possession" doesn't effectively or necessarily hold the same meaning for me. It simply implies that something is with you, but not necessarily yours, which is why it often lends itself to accounts of having illicit or stolen property or materials on one's person or in one's home, etc. Wiktionary further cites the following examples under the definition of ownership:

The car is in my possession.

I'm in possession of the car.

This has led to some confusion on a language site I frequent, where one of the users, a Russian, has attempted to use "being in possession of a [type of car - let's say...] Maserati" to translate what amounts to "owning a Maserati" in Russian. Are owning and being in possession of interchangeable?

  • There's simply no difference between the terms. "In possession of" means ownership. – Josh Friedlander Apr 24 '17 at 14:02
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    Thank you, Josh. So if we have the slogan: "Owning a Jaguar is a sheer joy," we could change it to "Being in possession of a Jaguar is a sheer joy" with no change in meaning? – CocoPop Apr 24 '17 at 14:05
  • Yes, although you'd sound slightly old-fashioned. – Josh Friedlander Apr 24 '17 at 14:09
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    @CocoPop There is most definitely a change in meaning. – Lambie Apr 24 '17 at 14:09
  • I stand corrected - as Lambie states, there does seem to be a difference in the legal sense. But I maintain that in a neutral context, or in the context of "...is a sheer joy", the two are identical. – Josh Friedlander Apr 24 '17 at 14:11

Here's proof for your "Russian": To be in possession of stolen goods. If to possess meant to own there, that phrase would not make sense. The legal phrase is /to be in possession of/some thing. You can be in possession of something and then, you do not own it. Have ownership of it.

That said, the VERB: I possess a car does commonly mean I have a car. It can mean I own a car but actually does not legally mean: I own a car.

Do not confuse the legal meaning of /to be in possession of/ with the verb to possess or to own. In common parlance, one would not say "I am in possession of a car" to just mean I have a car or I own a car.

With the verb possess, both can mean ownership: I own a car, I possess a car. But possess can merely mean; I have a car, without reference to ownership.

Sometimes, in legal matters, you are in possession of property (not stolen) that you have been given legal use of: that is called, usufruct. You are allowed to possess it and use it but you are not its legal owner. This kind of legal arrangement is often seen with property in wills where a person is allowed to make use of a property during his or lifetime but they have not actually inherited it. They do not own it.

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  • Thank you, Lambie. You have basically confirmed exactly what I tried to explain to my friend. Funny enough, he cited an example about being in possession of silverware and I suggested that it could be used legally, i.e. in reference to settling an estate amongst siblings. Great answer! – CocoPop Apr 24 '17 at 14:12
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    Yes, the reason I was able to answer your question is that I do a lot of legal translation and have had to reflect on this quite a bit. Cheers, – Lambie Apr 24 '17 at 14:14
  • Another subtle difference is that we can sometimes possess what we cannot own – specifically, I possess a husband and four children, but I would not say I "own" them (although I do own them in the sense that I admit to them...most of the time). – 1006a Apr 24 '17 at 14:23
  • Yes, indeed. I agree. I thought I had said that. – Lambie Apr 24 '17 at 14:42
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    @AndyT It's a slightly old-fashioned usage, but examples like "he now possessed two children and a wife" or (He) "had been married twice before, and was already in possession of three children, one from his first marriage and two from his second" are not that remarkable. – 1006a Apr 24 '17 at 15:00

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