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In English, possessive words or phrases exist for nouns and most pronouns, as well as some noun phrases. These can play the roles of determiners (also called possessive adjectives when corresponding to a pronoun) or of nouns.
For historical reasons, this case is misleadingly called the possessive (case). It was called the genitive until the 18th century and in fact expresses much more than possession. Most disagreements about the use of possessive forms of nouns and of the apostrophe are due to the opinion that a term should not use an apostrophe if it does not express possession.
In the words of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage:
The argument is a case of fooling oneself with one's own terminology. After the 18th-century grammarians began to refer to the genitive case as the possessive case, grammarians and other commentators got it into their heads that the only use of the case was to show possession...
This dictionary also cites a study in whose samples only 40% of the possessive forms were used to indicate actual possession.
Nouns, noun phrases, and some pronouns generally form a possessive with the suffix -'s (apostrophe plus s, but in some cases just by adding an apostrophe to an existing s). This form is sometimes called the Saxon genitive, reflecting the suffix's derivation from Old English or Anglo-Saxon. Personal pronouns, however, have irregular possessives, and most of them have different forms for possessive determiners and possessive pronouns, such as my and mine or your and yours.
Possessives are one of the means by which genitive constructions are formed in modern English, the other principal one being the use of the preposition of. It is sometimes stated that the possessives represent a grammatical case, called the genitive or possessive case, though some linguists do not accept this view, regarding the 's ending, variously, as a phrasal affix, an edge affix, or a clitic, rather than as a case ending.
Formation of possessive construction
Nouns and noun phrases
The possessive form of an English noun, or more generally a noun phrase, is made by suffixing a morpheme which is represented orthographically as 's (the letter s preceded by an apostrophe), and is pronounced in the same way as the regular English plural ending (e)s: namely as // when following a sibilant sound (/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/), as /s/ when following any other voiceless consonant (/p/, /t/, /k/, /f/ or /θ/), and as /z/ otherwise. For example:
- Mitch /mɪtʃ/ has the possessive Mitch's //
- luck /lʌk/ has the possessive luck's /lʌks/
- man /mæn/ has the singular possessive man's /mænz/ and the plural possessive men's
Note the distinction from the plural in nouns whose plural is irregular: man's vs. men, wife's vs. wives, etc.
In the case of plural nouns ending in -s, the possessive is spelled by only adding an apostrophe and is pronounced the same (for example: Peasants' Revolt). In the case of singular nouns ending in -s (or -z), the possessive was traditionally also spelled by adding only an apostrophe (despite often being pronounced differently):
- the possessive of cats is cats', both words being pronounced /kæts/
- the possessive of James can be spelled James's and pronounced -//, but the possessive of Jesus is often spelled adding only an apostrophe (Jesus') and is and was usually pronounced the same (/ˈdʒiːzəs/).
Singular nouns ending in s can also form a possessive regularly by adding 's, as in Charles's // or boss's. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends this style, while stating that adding just an apostrophe (e.g. Jesus' ) is also correct. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends the s's style for nouns other than proper nouns, but only if the following word does not begin with s. The Elements of Style and the Canadian Press Stylebook prefer the form of s's with the exception of Biblical and classical proper names (Jesus' teachings, Augustus' guards) and common phrases that do not take the extra syllabic s (e.g. "for goodness' sake"). For more on style guidance for this and other issues relating to the construction of possessives in English, see possessive apostrophe.
More generally, the 's morpheme can be attached to the last word of a noun phrase, even if the head noun does not end the phrase. For example, the phrase the king of Spain can form the possessive the king of Spain's, and – in informal style – the phrase the man we saw yesterday can form the man we saw yesterday's. Both John's and Laura's house and John and Laura's house are correct, though the latter is more common, especially in idiomatic speech. See § Status of the possessive as a grammatical case below.
Scientific terminology, in particular the Latin names for stars, uses the Latin genitive form of the name of the constellation; thus, Alpha Centauri, where Centauri is the genitive of constellation name Centaurus.
Unlike with other noun phrases which only have a single possessive form, personal pronouns in English have two possessive forms: possessive determiners (used to form noun phrases such as "her success") and possessive pronouns (used in place of nouns as in "I prefer hers", and also in predicative expressions as in "the success was hers"). In most cases these are different from each other.
For example, the pronoun I has possessive determiner my and possessive pronoun mine; you has your and yours; he has his for both; she has her and hers; it has its for both; we has our and ours; they has their and theirs. The archaic thou has thy and thine. For a full table and further details, see English personal pronouns.
Note that possessive its has no apostrophe, although it is sometimes written with one in error (see hypercorrection) by confusion with the common possessive ending -'s and the contraction it's used for it is and it has. Possessive its was originally formed with an apostrophe in the 17th century, but it had been dropped by the early 19th century, presumably to make it more similar to the other personal pronoun possessives.
Other pronouns that form possessives (mainly indefinite pronouns) do so in the same way as nouns, with 's, for example one's, somebody's (and somebody else's). Certain pronouns, such as the common demonstratives this, that, these, and those, do not form their possessives using 's, and of this, of that, etc, are used instead.
Syntactic functions of possessive words or phrases
English possessives play two principal roles in syntax:
- the role of possessive determiners (more popularly called possessive adjectives; see Possessive § Terminology) standing before a noun, as in my house or John's two sisters;
- the role of possessive pronouns (although they may not always be called that), standing independently in place of a noun, as in mine is large; they prefer John's.
Possessive noun phrases such as "John's" can be used as determiners. When a form corresponding to a personal pronoun is used as a possessive determiner, the correct form must be used, as described above (my rather than mine, etc.).
Possessive determiners are not used in combination with articles or other definite determiners. For example, it is not correct to say *the my hat, *a my hat or *this my hat; an alternative is provided in the last two cases by the "double genitive" as described in the following section – a hat of mine (also one of my hats), this hat of mine. Possessive determiners can nonetheless be combined with certain quantifiers, as in my six hats (which differs in meaning from six of my hats). See English determiners for more details.
A possessive adjective can be intensified with the word own, which can itself be either an adjective or a pronoun: my own (bed), John's own (bed).
In some expressions the possessive has itself taken on the role of a noun modifier, as in cow's milk (used rather than cow milk). It then no longer functions as a determiner; adjectives and determiners can be placed before it, as in the warm cow's milk, where idiomatically the and warm now refer to the milk, not to the cow.
Possessive relationships can also be expressed periphrastically, by preceding the noun or noun phrase with the preposition of, although possessives are usually more idiomatic where a true relationship of possession is involved. Some examples:
- the child's bag might also be expressed as the bag of the child
- our cats' mother might be expressed as the mother of our cats
- the system's failure might be expressed as the failure of the system
Another alternative in the last case may be the system failure, using system as a noun adjunct rather than a possessive.
Possessives can also play the role of nouns or pronouns; namely they can stand alone as a noun phrase, without qualifying a noun. In this role they can function as the subject or object of verbs, or as a complement of prepositions. When a form corresponding to a personal pronoun is used in this role, the correct form must be used, as described above (mine rather than my, etc.).
- I'll do my work, and you do yours. (here yours is a possessive pronoun, meaning "your work", and standing as the object of the verb do)
- My car is old, Mary's is new. (here Mary's means "Mary's car" and stands as the subject of its clause)
- Your house is nice, but I prefer to stay in mine. (here mine means "my house", and is the complement of the preposition in)
The genitive can be combined with an of construction to produce what is often called a double genitive, as in the following examples:
- that hard heart of thine (Venus and Adonis, line 500)
- this extreme exactness of his (Sterne, Tristram Shandy, chapter 1.IV)
- that poor mother of mine (Thackeray, Barry Lyndon, chapter I) and uses of the title Mother of Mine,
- Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby's is a Friend of Mine, and frequent uses of the title Friend of Mine
- a picture of the king's (that is, a picture owned by the king, as distinct from a picture of the king – a picture in which the king is portrayed)
Some object to the name double genitive because the "of" clause is not a genitive. Alternative names are "oblique genitive", "post-genitive", "cumulative genitive", "pleonastic genitive", and "double possessive".
Some writers have stigmatized this usage. However, it has a history in careful English. "Moreover, in some sentences the double genitive offers the only way to express what is meant. There is no substitute for it in a sentence such as That’s the only friend of yours that I’ve ever met, since sentences such as That’s your only friend that I’ve ever met and That’s your only friend, whom I’ve ever met are not grammatical." Cf."That's the only one of your friends that I've ever met""[T]he construction is confined to human referents: compare a friend of the Gallery / no fault of the Gallery."
In predicative expressions
When they are used as predicative expressions, as in this is mine and that pen is John's, the intended sense may be either that of a pronoun or of a predicate adjective; however their form (mine, yours, etc.) in this case is the same as that used in other sentences for possessive pronouns.
Use of whose
The following sentences illustrate the uses of whose:
- As the possessive of interrogative who: Whose pen is this? Whose do you prefer? For whose good are we doing it?
- As the possessive of relative who (normally only as determiner, not pronoun): There is the man whose pen we broke. She is the woman in whose garden we found you.
- As the possessive of relative which (again, normally only as determiner): It is an idea whose time has come (preferably to ...of which the time has come).
Possessives, as well as their synonymous constructions with of, express a range of relationships that are not limited strictly to possession in the sense of ownership. Some discussion of such relationships can be found at Possession (linguistics) and at Possessive § Semantics. Some points as they relate specifically to English are discussed below.
When possessives are used with a verbal noun or other noun expressing an action, the possessive may represent either the doer of the action (the subject of the corresponding verb) or the undergoer of the action (the object of the verb). The same applies to of phrases. When a possessive and an of phrase are used with the same action noun, the former generally represents the subject and the latter the object. For example:
- Fred's dancing (or the dancing of Fred) – Fred is the dancer (only possible meaning with this verb)
- the proposal's rejection or the rejection of the proposal – the proposal is rejected
- Fred's rejection of the proposal – Fred is the rejecter, the proposal is rejected
When a gerundive phrase acts as the object of a verb or preposition, the agent/subject of the gerund may be possessive or not, reflecting two different but equally valid interpretations of the phrase's structure:
- I object to Ralph destroying the barn. (Ralph is the subject of the gerundive verb "destroying.")
- I object to Ralph's destroying the barn. (Ralph is the genitive of the verbal noun "destroying.")
Time periods are sometimes put into possessive form, to express the duration of or time associated with the modified noun:
- the Hundred Years' War
- a day's pay
- two weeks' notice
The paraphrase with of is often un-idiomatic or ambiguous in these cases.
Sometimes the possessive expresses for whom something is intended, rather than to whom it physically belongs:
- women's shoes
- children's literature
These cases would be paraphrased with for rather than of (shoes for women).
Sometimes genitive constructions are used to express a noun in apposition to the main one, as in the Isle of Man, the problem of drug abuse. This may be occasionally be done with a possessive (as in Dublin’s fair city, for the fair city of Dublin), but this is a rare usage.
The 's clitic originated in Old English as an inflexional suffix marking genitive case. In the modern language, it can often be attached to the end of an entire phrase (as in "The king of Spain's wife" or "The man whom you met yesterday's bicycle"). As a result, it is normally viewed by linguists as a clitic, i.e. a morpheme that has syntactic characteristics of a word, but depends phonologically on another word or phrase.
An identical form of the clitic exists in the North Germanic languages, and in the North Frisian sister language of Old English. But the accepted linguistic history of the clitic possessive in these languages is very different.
In Old English, -es was the ending of the genitive singular of most strong declension nouns and the masculine and neuter genitive singular of strong adjectives. The ending -e was used for strong nouns with Germanic ō-stems, which constituted most of the feminine strong nouns, and for the feminine genitive singular form of strong adjectives.
|Weak||m. / f. / n.||-an||-ena|
In Middle English the es ending was generalised to the genitive of all strong declension nouns. By the sixteenth century, the remaining strong declension endings were generalized to all nouns. The spelling es remained, but in many words the letter e no longer represented a sound. In those words, printers often copied the French practice of substituting an apostrophe for the letter e. In later use, 's was used for all nouns where the /s/ sound was used for the possessive form, and when adding 's to a word like love the e was no longer omitted. Confusingly, the 's form was also used for plural noun forms. These were derived from the strong declension as ending in Old English. In Middle English, the spelling was changed to -es, reflecting a change in pronunciation, and extended to all cases of the plural, including the genitive. Later conventions removed the apostrophe from subjective and objective case forms and added it after the s in possessive case forms. See Apostrophe: Historical development
The verse Genesis 9:6 shows the development. In the Wycliffe Bible (1395), we find the word "mannus" ("Who euere schedith out mannus blood, his blood schal be sched; for man is maad to the ymage of God."). In the original King James Bible (1611) we have "mans" ("Who so sheddeth mans blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man."). In the plural, the 1611 King James has mens, but the older Wycliffe Bible uses of men.
Another remnant of the Old English genitive is the adverbial genitive, where the ending s (without apostrophe) forms adverbs of time: nowadays, closed Sundays. There is a literary periphrastic form using of, as in of a summer day. There are also forms in -ce, from genitives of number and place: once, twice, thrice; whence, hence, thence.
There is also the "genitive of measure": forms such as "a five-mile journey" and "a ten-foot pole" use what is actually a remnant of the Old English genitive plural which, ending in /a/, had neither the final /s/ nor underwent the foot/feet vowel mutation of the nominative plural. In essence, the underlying forms are "a five of miles (O.E. gen. pl. mīla) journey" and "a ten of feet (O.E. gen. pl. fōta) pole".
Status of the possessive as a grammatical case
Historically, the possessive morpheme represented by 's was a case marker, as noted in the previous section, and the modern English possessive can also be analysed as a grammatical case, called the "possessive case" or "genitive case". However, it differs from the noun inflection of languages such as German, in that in phrases like the king of England's horse the ending is separated from the head noun (king) and attaches to the last word of the phrase. To account for this, the possessive can be analysed, for instance as a clitic construction (an "enclitic postposition") or as an inflection of the last word of a phrase ("edge inflection"). (The form the king's horse of England was the correct form in old times,[when?] but not now.)
- The Oxford English Grammar, under the heading "Case", states "In speech the genitive is signalled in singular nouns by an inflection that has the same pronunciation variants as for plural nouns in the common case."
- A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, under the heading "The forms of the genitive inflection", similarly refers to the "genitive inflection with regular and irregular plurals", but later – especially with regard to the "group genitive" – revises this to clarify that the -s ending is not a case ending as in German or Latin but is "more appropriately described as an enclitic postposition'".
- The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses the possessive in greater detail, taking account of group (or phrasal) genitives like the King of England's and somebody else's and analyses the construction as an inflection of the final word of the phrase (as opposed to the head word). The discussion in support of this inflectional analysis includes:
- the personal pronouns, where "no other analysis is possible",
- the fact that the genitive ’s cannot stand alone, unlike ’m in I'm, which can be expanded to am
- the varying form of the genitive suffix (/ɪz/, /z/, /s/) depending on "the phonological properties of the base to which it attaches"
- the sensitivity of the genitive formation to the internal morphological structure of the noun.
Other views are (1) that the possessive can be regarded as having elements of an affix and elements of a clitic, which are seen as idealized categories, and (2) that the possessive form can be an affix or a clitic, but only one of the two in any given example.
- "Possessives". Quick and Dirty Tips. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
- McArthur, Roshan; McArthur, Thomas Burns (2005). Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press. Saxon Genitive. ISBN 9780192806376.
- Yin, Karen (2011). "Apostrophe-S vs. Apostrophe: Forming Possessives of Words Ending in S". AP vs. Chicago. Archived from the original on 2020-11-12. Retrieved 2020-12-28.
- "The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition". The Chicago Manual of Style Online.
- The Elements of Style
- The Canadian Press Stylebook, 14th Edition. ISBN 978-0-920009-42-0.
- "its - Origin and meaning of its by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
- Fowler, H.W. (2015). Butterfield, Jeremy (ed.). Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 887. ISBN 978-0-19-966135-0.
- Fowler, Henry W.; Burchfield, R.W. (2000). "double possessive". The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 227. ISBN 01-9860-263-4.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). "5: Nouns and noun phrases § 16.3 Type III". The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 468–9. ISBN 05-2143-146-8.
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartik, Jan (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman. p. 330.
- "'double-possessive' tag wiki". english.stackexchange.com.
- Henry Sweet (1898). "§2014". A New English Grammar: Logical and Historical. II. p. 75.
- Garner, Bryan A. (2016). Garner's Modern English Usage (4th ed.). p. 713. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2.
- Quinion, Michael. "Double Possessive". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2009-05-19.
- "The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. 1996. Page 26". 7 June 2008. Archived from the original on 7 June 2008.
- page 162 under the heading double genitive in Pam Peters (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62181-X.
- "of XIII.44". The Oxford English Dictionary. 10 (2 ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. p. 715. ISBN 01-9861-186-2.
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartvik, Jan (1985). "§ 5.116 note [b]". A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London and New York: Longman. p. 322. ISBN 0-582-51734-6.
- Campbell, A. Old English Grammar. Oxford University Press. Oxford 1959. Chapter IX
- "The Wycliffe Bible, Genesis 9".
- "Genesis Chapter 9, 1611 King James Bible".
- "adverbial genitive". Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. 1994. pp. 35–6. ISBN 978-0-87779-132-4. Retrieved 2009-05-16.
Also see entry of.3 page 680.
- The Origins and Development of the English Language, Volume 1, John Algeo, Thomas Pyles Cengage Learning, 2009, p 96
- Greenbaum, Sidney (1996). The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press. pp. 109–110. ISBN 0-19-861250-8.
In speech the genitive is signalled in singular nouns by an inflection that has the same pronunciation variants as for plural nouns in the common case
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartik, Jan (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman. p. 319.
In writing, the inflection of regular nouns is realized in the singular by apostrophe + s (boy's), and in the regular plural by the apostrophe following the plural s (boys')
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartvik, Jan (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow: Longman. p. 328. ISBN 978-0-582-51734-9.
- Payne, John; Huddleston, Rodney (2002). "Nouns and noun phrases". In Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (eds.). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 479–481. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
We conclude that both head and phrasal genitives involve case inflection. With head genitives it is always a noun that inflects, while the phrasal genitive can apply to words of most classes.
- Hudson, Richard (2013). "A cognitive analysis of John's hat". In Börjars, Kersti; Denison, David; Scott, Alan (eds.). Morphosyntactic Categories and the Expression of Possession. John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 123–148. ISBN 9789027273000.
- Börjars, Kersti; Denison, David; Krajewski, Grzegorz; Scott, Alan (2013). "Expression of Possession in English". In Börjars, Kersti; Denison, David; Scott, Alan (eds.). Morphosyntactic Categories and the Expression of Possession. John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 149–176. ISBN 9789027273000.
- Using the possessive in English A guide for learners of English