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Consider the following examples:

  1. I have to go now, my Uber driver has arrived.
  2. So, have you already learned your ABCs?
  3. I now will put my eggs into the dry ingredients.

All of these are examples of a pattern that I usually see in American English, where the use of the definite article the is replaced by a possessive article. In all three cases, the use of a possessive is a bit more abstract than "I will put on my jacket." where the object is literally owned by the person saying it:

  1. You don't really own the driver of your car, but it is "assigned to you". This is similar to "I will be your waiter tonight" to mean "I am the waiter that has been assigned to your table."

  2. You don't really own the alphabet, but you can incorporate it into your knowledge.

  3. You do posses the eggs (presumably, you bought them) but it seems peculiar to stress that they are yours when giving a recipe. Why not just say "the eggs"? I dare say I hear this exclusively when watching videos of American cooks, everywhere else people say "the [blah]".

Question. Is this actually a real phenomenon in AmE, or am I missing something? If so, have people given this more than a brief thought?

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  • 1
    This is an interesting question, I've been wondering about this phenomenon for some time. Unfortunately I don't have a term for it to do a search for specific papers. Jan 6 at 10:54
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    Possessive (or its more generic cousin genitive) has never meant strict ownership. It indicates relationship. English speakers apparently like stressing that relationship. Perhaps it has at times reduced ambiguity (which person is being picked up by the Uber? Who currently has the eggs and is going to put them into the mix? Etc.)
    – siride
    Jan 6 at 13:28
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    @jlawler I am confused: putting answers in the comments goes against the way SE sites are designed. In particular, the goal is to get an answer the question posed, which can then be accepted, doesn't it? Of course different SE sites work differently, but in math.SE we definitely discourage answers from being posted in the comments precisely for this reason.
    – Pedro
    Jan 6 at 20:37
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    Answering in comments is discouraged here as well, but simply linking to external resources does not constitute an answer (this is the case, as far as I know, on all SE sites). Similarly, the following is a comment because I have nothing but my own anecdotal experience to back up with: I’d say no, this is not an AmE phenomenon. All three examples sound perfectly normal in BrE to me (and presumably also AuE, SAE, etc.) – in fact, they’re all perfectly normal in other languages as well. In 3, a definite article is equally fine, but not really in 1, and definitely not in 2. Jan 6 at 20:58
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    @PedroTamaroff English English. So admittedly not so relevant to the OP, who specifies AmE. If this usage is commoner in AmE than in BrE then that's something I didn't previously know.
    – Rosie F
    Jan 10 at 14:57

1 Answer 1

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I will start answering to flush out the semantics described according to my sense of American English.

In "1. I have to go now, my Uber driver has arrived," the possessive is normally required and is a compact way of saying "the Uber driver that is coming to pick me up has arrived." If the context is absolutely clear, it is acceptable to say only "the Uber" driver, but it would still seem to call for a very specific discourse referent, implying the listener knows specifically that an Uber driver was called only on your behalf. Pragmatically, since you may not immediately recall what shared referent you have with your conversation partner about your departure, it is safer to say "my Uber driver." You could say this even if you have not said that you had called an Uber or if you had discussed using a different car service, or even if you had not mentioned that you were leaving at all. "My Uber" has much broader reference than "the Uber."

In "2. So, have you already learned your ABCs?," using the possessive asserts that learning ABCs is already part of the addressee's curriculum. If you say "the ABCs," you leave open whether or not the person will ever have to learn them. The former is what is usually said to a child to generate a feeling of shared experience, implying that everyone learns the(ir) ABCs as part of their normal development. Mentally, it is tied to other similar expressions like "Have you learned to tie your shoelaces?" or "Have you learned to open the lock on your locker?" or "Have you learned to brush your teeth?"

In "3. I now will put my eggs into the dry ingredients," the possessive is completely optional in this case, unlike in the other two sentences. You could also say: " 3.b I will now put the eggs into my dry ingredients." I think using the possessive helps to manage how the listener shifts mental focus. In the first sentence, the speaker implies a joint focus on managing the eggs as they go into the dry ingredients, whereas the second implies a continuing focus on the dry ingredients as eggs are mixed with them. Both project a certain immediacy and the shared experience of speaker and listener. If you use no possessive, you merely give an objective description of the recipe as is usually done in a cookbook, as opposed to a live performance where you can be more inclusive of the audience.

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