My House is Not Your House. In Fact, It's Not Even My House.
Updated: Feb 26
Letters to the paper I write for recently had a hissy fit over one of our era’s deeper questions: viz. may one apply a possessive pronoun to a pet? An especially fulsome letter praised the writer’s dog in extravagant terms, granting Fido full citizenship as person and colleague. My dog is not my possession, said the letter. He is my equal and my friend. I have no moral or ethical rights over him. I could dispute his effusion in many ways – as Homer Simpson says, a pet is the only family member you can give away – but instead I’ll take one of those sideways hops beloved by professors emeriti of English writing, and look at the grammar and etymology of my mother tongue’s possessive parts of speech. I’m not sure this has been done before, so if there are English aficionadi out there who would like to advise or correct me, I’d love to hear from you.
My position is that linguistically, the possessive can be split into two main groups: active and passive, or more accurately active and ergative. The term ‘ergative’ is an admission of misrepresentation. An ergative verb is a passive form posing as active, e.g. ‘the window broke.’ In reality the window didn’t break anything, not even itself: it was broken by some external agency, be it extreme cold or an errant softball – it suffered an action, rather than performing it. Similarly, I suggest, possessives can be ergative as well, so that any person, place or thing claimed as property is really the owner, and not the owned.
Let me explain. The active possessive conveys direct and absolute ownership, what real-estate lawyers might call tenure in fee simple. My head, my heart, my hands; my words, my thoughts, my feelings: these originate in me and in part even constitute me – they are truly, permanently, absolutely mine. The same may be said about my books and other writings, all of which are covered by a legal copyright that I actively possess. (Except in India, where my books sell in the millions but give me no residuals, since copyright laws in the subcontinent do not apply. Technically they do; but as the current wait time for restitutive torts is half a millennium, I’m not holding my breath. India, mon ami, at some point you might wish to come out of the Paleolithic Age and join the globe. Just saying.)
The passive (ergative) possessive is a horse of a different hue: Various nouns in it are more slippery. ‘My house,’ for example: Can anyone truly say this as long as they have a mortgage? We’re renting, aren’t we, as long as we’re in debt – renting not the place itself, but rather the money it took to buy it? The bank can say ‘my [or rather the corporate ‘our’] house’, but you and I can’t say it till the thing’s paid off. Before then, what appears to be ownership is less than it seems. Already, then, our possessive terms have waded into the murky wetlands of the ergative.
It gets worse. The phrase ‘My God,’ for example: Are you saying you own Him? Surely it’s the other way around. And how about ‘my’ boss, job, clients? ‘My’ city, province, country? ‘My’ language, generation, or cultural group? ‘My’ political party? And the kicker: how about ‘my’ spouse? Some morons claim this as an active possessive; but like every intelligent husband who values his life, I do not dare say so. All these nouns demand the ergative possessive – they own, they are not owned. We belong to the noun, not he-she-it to us.
Which brings us back to Mr Fido the letter writer. By his own admission, the active agent in ‘his’ man-dog relationship is ‘his’ dog, so that any possessive phrase he uses is an ergative. This being the case, I would ask the letter writer who in ‘his’ household pays the bills; who takes whom for medical care; who buys and serves food; who walks whom, when, and to what parks; who writes letters to the editor. If it’s the letter-writer’s dog, my admiration for ‘his’ pooch is boundless. If it’s the human being who sent the letter, some linguistic education seems in line.
Bill Atkinson lives in Calgary with ‘his’ wife. She has neither reviewed nor approved the above text.