Are there cases where the possessive adjective is omitted in a sentence, or is it always used?

For example, in a sentence like "Susan was walking with her hands in her pockets", is it necessary to say "her hands", and "her pockets"? In Italian, we don't say whose hands, or whose pockets if not in a sentence like "Susan was walking with her hands in Michael's pockets".

I was wondering if the use of the possessive adjective is strictly necessary in cases like these.


5 Answers 5


To me, it feels a bit unusual to say ?"Susan was walking with hands in pockets", but "Susan was walking, hands in pockets." seems perfectly fine.

English speaking people drop possessive adjectives and other pronouns all the time in their speech, but are much less likely to do so when writing things down. For someone learning English, it is probably better to keep them in, as it reduces ambiguity.

But yes, English does have a huge trend of clarifying many statements which could be perfectly clear from the context. But it's not a rule which must always be followed.

Another example: "The matron was standing there, staring at me, hands on her hips." Could be written as "The matron was standing there, staring, hands on hips." Whose hips her hands are on, is very obvious. Who she is staring at would have to be garned from context (i.e. the prior sentences).

So no, the possessive adjective is not strictly necessary, but until you intuitively understand when and where they can be dropped while retaining meaning, it is probably better to keep using them. But by all means, experiment.


In English, we tend to really strongly favor attributing the possessor of body parts. (Why? It's hard to point to a real reason.) In any case, I find it interesting that there is a certain construction where we can often get around using the possessive for body parts.

We have the following pattern (preceding question mark = awkward at best):

John shook his head. / ? John shook the head.

I am having some pain in my eyes. / ? I am having some pain in the eyes.

I need to blow my nose. / ? I need to blow the nose.

But with the following construction, we don't need the possessive:

John whacked me on the head.

I looked him in the eyes.

She kissed her boyfriend on the nose.

  • Also, "I shot myself in the foot" is fine. Sep 12, 2012 at 5:17

If Italian is like Spanish, then in cases where you don’t specify whose hands or whose pockets, as in the example in the question, you use the ordinary definite article in lieu of the possessive pronoun (the equivalent of the hands and the pockets).

The substitution of the definite article for the possessive pronoun is not grammatical in English as it in Spanish and presumably Italian. That is, you can’t say “Susan was walking with the hands in the pockets”. As Vincent McNabb points out in his answer, you can in some cases use a zero article—“Susan was walking with hands in pockets”—but this has a kind of breezy or poetic feel to it. It is not really a neutral, unmarked way to say it equivalent to “Susan was walking with her hands in her pockets”.

  • That's correct; in Italian I would use the definite article, at least for hands ("Susanna stava camminando con le mani in tasca").
    – apaderno
    Aug 14, 2010 at 0:23
  • Good point about the articles—as a native AmE speaker, it didn't even occur to me that the definite article was a possibility there. It might also be worth noting that mixing article types is especially risky—“Susan was walking with hands in her pockets” sounds like Susan amputated some hands and staged them in her pockets, and I think “the hands in her pockets” would almost always be interpreted that way.
    – 1006a
    Aug 20, 2017 at 7:23

Sure. I think this sentence works either way.

Suzy didn't eat her breakfast today.

Suzy didn't eat breakfast today.


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