In 'File Change Semantics and the Familiarity Theory of Definiteness' by Irene Heim, she calls 'its' in 'Every cat ate its food' a type of definite NP. Could a possessive adjective be classified as a noun phrase???

  1. Every cat ate its food.
  2. John didn't see a cat.

(2) has a reading where "its", a personal pronoun, i.e. a type of definite NP, functions as a so-called "bound variable pronoun" and doesn't refer to any particular cat.

  • 1
    Yes, she's right. Personal pronouns are definite NPs (or DPs).
    – Alex B.
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 18:46

2 Answers 2


It's hard to match up your question with your examples. The "its" in "its food" is neither an adjective nor a noun phrase. It is a definite determiner. The usual analysis is that this determiner is formed by combining a noun phrase with the "-s" ending. The definite pronoun "it" is a noun phrase, so "its" is simply a special case where the noun phrase "it" has been suffixed with "-s".

Full noun phrases, not just definite pronouns, can take this same "-s" suffix to form such noun phrases as "[NP [NP the man]'s hat]", "[NP [NP a girl who I used to know]'s car]", "[NP [NP [NP the hat]'s brim]'s edge]".

  • 1
    So Heim's claim of "its" being a type of definite noun phrase is correct? Is it because she is saying 'type of' definite noun phrase? Not really a genuine definite noun phrase, but 'type of' definite noun phrase ....
    – Sssamy
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 7:01
  • No, "its" is not a definite noun phrase. It is a definite determiner within a noun phrase, which is formed by suffixing "-s" to a noun phrase, which need not be definite. "A man's hat" is a definite noun phrase formed by combining the definite determiner "a man's" with the noun "hat", and the definite determiner is formed by combining the indefinite noun phrase "a man" with the suffix "-s". (I confess that I didn't read the Heim reference.)
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 7:20
  • I see, Greg. I see it. Thanks. Very helpful.
    – Sssamy
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 11:17

Heim's expression is ambiguous, but I think the sense is, if not exactly clear, at least readily recoverable. What Heim means is that the it piece of its is a pronoun standing for a "definite" NP, yet has no specific referent—it refers to no particular cat.

I see three strategies for rescuing the expression:

  1. Its is a typo for it, or
  2. Its is considered under the aspect "inflected form of it", or
  3. Its is an awkward way of mentioning a morphological component while preserving reference to a constituent actually present in the utterance.

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