a big dog's toy

SuprunP

Senior Member
Ukrainian & Russian
"It was a big dog's toy."
Can it be understood in two ways?
Or should it be paraphrased only in this way?
"It was a toy of a big dog."

Thanks.
 
  • se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    No, it could also be a big toy of a dog. We can distinguish between
    - big dogstoy and
    - bigdog's toy
    through the pattern of emphasis in speech, but not in writing.
     
    Last edited:

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    "It" is an object (maybe a ball etc. for dogs to play).
    (I know that context is ever essential to be able to understand the meaning, but, as I said, it was the idea of this structure I wanted to 'delve into'.)

    So, I suppose that this sentence has only one meaning?:
    "It was a dog's big toy."
    (Meaning: "It was a big toy of a dog.")

    Thanks.
     

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    "It was his first day's convalescence [...]"
    May this sentence be ambiguous as well?
    Can it mean that it was his first day of convalescence (he had been ill for some days and this day he felt better) or that he sometimes felt better (and sometimes the illness came back) and this was his first time of the day when he felt better?

    Thanks.
     

    eni8ma

    Senior Member
    English - Australia
    It just doesn't look right anyway. A day doesn't have a convalescence, so "day's convalescence" doesn't work.

    - It was his first day of convalescence ...
     

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    I've found this expression here.

    The family had all gone into town, with the exception of Leslie, who was recovering from a very severe attack of dysentery. It was his first day's convalescence and he lay on the sofa in the drawing-room as weak as a kitten, sipping iced tea and reading a large manual on ballistics.

    ("Birds, Beasts, and Relatives" by Gerald Durrell, Chapter 5. Cuttlefish and Crabs)

    I've found some similar (in my humble opinion) examples on COCA:

    "At Union headquarters, Grant had a different view of the first day's fighting."

    "Soon the fishhookshaped defensive line was prepared for the next phase of the battle. That ended the first day's battle at Gettysburg."

    "He was a big eight-pointer, and I had him in the canoe and back to camp before my companions came in at the end of that first day's hunt."


    Does this construction work in these sentences?

    Thanks.
     

    exgerman

    Senior Member
    NYC
    English but my first language was German
    I've found this expression here.

    The family had all gone into town, with the exception of Leslie, who was recovering from a very severe attack of dysentery. It was his first day's convalescence and he lay on the sofa in the drawing-room as weak as a kitten, sipping iced tea and reading a large manual on ballistics.

    ("Birds, Beasts, and Relatives" by Gerald Durrell, Chapter 5. Cuttlefish and Crabs)

    I've found some similar (in my humble opinion) examples on COCA:

    "At Union headquarters, Grant had a different view of the first day's fighting."

    "Soon the fishhookshaped defensive line was prepared for the next phase of the battle. That ended the first day's battle at Gettysburg."

    "He was a big eight-pointer, and I had him in the canoe and back to camp before my companions came in at the end of that first day's hunt."


    Does this construction work in these sentences?

    Thanks.
    The last three examples sound fine to me, and I think you're right that the construction is the same as in your example from Gerald Durrell's charming book. Unfortunately his sentence still sounds really odd to this American ear.
     

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    May I use this construction in these two ways?

    1. We have a small beauty contest. It will last for three days. One day - one small contest. I'm talking with a friend of mine after the first day of the beauty contest and I say:
    "The first day's contest was very interesting and eventful..." (meaning: the first day of the beauty contest)

    2. We have a small beauty contest. It will last for one day. One day - three small contests. I'm talking with a friend of mine after the first small contest of the beauty contest and I say:
    "The first day's contest was very interesting and eventful..." (meaning: the first contest of the day)

    (Maybe these examples are slightly awkward, but what I'm trying to work out is whether it is possible to understand this construction in two ways, as it is possible with "a big dog's toy".)

    Thanks.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    "The first day's contest was very interesting and eventful..." (meaning: the first contest of the day)

    should be

    "The day's first contest was very interesting and eventful..." (meaning: the first contest of the day)

    I once was told to avoid giving inanimate objects possessives if possible - I don't know how true this is...
     

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    I still can't understand one simple thing - why the construction "a big dog's toy" can be understood in two ways and the "the first day's contest" (which seems to me pretty similar to the former) cannot?

    (I understand that for the sake of unambiguity it is prudent to paraphrase the latter construction as PaulQ did, but, wouldn't it be reasonable as well to say "a big dog's toy" meaning [only] "a toy of a big dog" and "a dog's big toy" meaning "a big toy of a dog"?)

    Thanks.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    I agree - your suggestions solve the problem but a lot of confusion has come about because "dogs' toy" is treated as "dog's toy." A dogs' toy is anything with which dogs (in general) play.

    A big dogs' toy is a big toy for dogs. A big dog's toy is the toy of a big dog.

    However, and here is the problem, when it is spoken, there is no difference.
     

    Fabulist

    Banned
    American English
    I still can't understand one simple thing - why the construction "a big dog's toy" can be understood in two ways and the "the first day's contest" (which seems to me pretty similar to the former) cannot?

    (I understand that for the sake of unambiguity it is prudent to paraphrase the latter construction as PaulQ did, but, wouldn't it be reasonable as well to say "a big dog's toy" meaning [only] "a toy of a big dog" and "a dog's big toy" meaning "a big toy of a dog"?)

    Thanks.
    "A big dog's toy" is ambiguous only under certain circumstances. "The first day's contest" isn't ambiguous because we would write or say "the first contest of the day" as "the day's first contest." I'm not sure that there is any "rule" or list of nouns for this.

    "A big dog's toy" isn't ambiguous in a sentence like "A big dog needs a big dog's toy, not something for a lap dog," or "A St. Bernard [a very large breed of dog] needs a big dog's toy." Conversely, "The Chihuahua [a very small breed of dog] chased the huge ball, but couldn't retrieve it; it was a big dog's toy."

    It wouldn't be ambiguous if "big dog" were being used as a metaphor for "important or powerful person," either: "The Humvee is large and expensive; it exudes power and indifference. It is a big dog's toy."
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Big dog's toy is ambiguous because there are two possible groupings:
    - the (big dog)'s toy = the toy of the big dog.
    - the big (dog's toy) = the big toy that is a dog's toy.
    Both of the red terms are familiar.

    That is not the case with "first day's contest. Although theoretically there are still two possible groupings, only one of them carries meaning.
    - (first day's) contest = the contest on the first day.
    - first (day's contest) ?? I don't have a concept for "day's contest".
     

    Fabulist

    Banned
    American English
    Yes, but if there were two contests in one day, we would call them
    "The first contest of the day":tick: but not "The first day's contest":cross:
    "The second contest of the day":tick: but not "The second day's contest":cross:

    Ambiguity over"first day's contest" might be "logical" to someone approaching the language from outside and trying to generalize from one situation to another, but languages do not always work like that, and this seems to be a case where English does not. I think this has something to do with the difference between "first," an ordinal number or numerical adjective, and "big," a size or quality adjective.
     

    eni8ma

    Senior Member
    English - Australia
    I still can't understand one simple thing - why the construction "a big dog's toy" can be understood in two ways and the "the first day's contest" (which seems to me pretty similar to the former) cannot?
    As you have rightly mentioned, the construction "first day's ~" is used (my bad :))

    However when we group each phrase differently ...
    a (big dog's) toy - a toy for a big dog - dog owns the toy; big describes the dog
    a big (dogs' toy) - a big toy for dogs - both big and dogs' describes the toy

    the (first day's) contest - contest on the first day - day owns the contest; first describes the day
    the first (days' contest) - a first contest for days ?!? - both first and days' describes the contest

    What is a "days' contest"? "dogs' toy" we all understand, but a "days' contest"?

    To take another example:
    - the (first man's) finger
    - man owns the finger; first describes the man
    - the first (mans' finger) - both first and mans' describes the finger ?!?
    We'd have to say the "first man's first finger"

    Similarly "the day's first contest".
     

    Fabulist

    Banned
    American English
    I wish a professional ESL teacher would join this thread, because there is probably a textbook explanation about adjective order that would straighten this out for SuprunP. I think there is some difference between "big" and "first" that explains why in "big dog's toy" "big" can modify either "dog" or "toy," but "first," if placed before a possessive noun, can not modify another noun following the possessive.

    The first man's finger can only mean the otherwise undescribed finger of the first man, it can not mean, in English, the first finger belonging to an unspecified man. The first finger belonging to "the man" has to be the man's first finger. And as eni8ma says, to specify the first finger of the first man, we have to say the first man's first finger.

    There are other cases, similar in structure to "big dog's toy," that are not ambiguous. Take a long day's journey. This isn't ambiguous because a long {day's journey} and a {long day's} journey are the same thing—a journey that takes only one day, but that either requires a great deal of effort to complete in one day or that is going to take more of a day than "a day's journey" usually does—16 hours instead of 8 or 12, say. The same is true of a short day's journey, where a short {day's journey} and a {short day's} journey both mean a journey that can be completed more easily than an ordinary "day's journey" or in a smaller fraction of a day than an ordinary "day's journey."

    Sometimes, there is no ambiguity because an adjective can apply to only one following noun: a leaky flower pot can only be a {flower pot} that is leaky, not a pot for or containing a {leaky flower} because flowers can't be "leaky." With a possessive, there would be no amiguity over the woolen man's hat, because only hats can be "woolen," men can not be. We can have a woolen {man's hat}, but we can't have a {woolen man's} hat.
     

    eni8ma

    Senior Member
    English - Australia
    the first dog's toy :tick: the first dog has a toy
    the first dogs' toy :tick: the first toy of the kind that dogs play with

    the first flower pot :tick: the first pot for flowers
    the first flower pot :cross: what's a first flower? why would you have a pot for a first flower?

    the first day's contest :tick: a contest on the first day
    the first days' contest :cross: what is a days' contest?
    the first daily contest :tick:
    the day's first contest :tick:
     

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    I slept over this information and came out with a 'daring' suggestion, which I'd like to subject to you. :)

    Let's have a look at the logic behind the "a toy of a dog".
    "A toy of a dog" = "a dog's toy".
    From this we can deduce a small rule: "an A of a B" = "a B's A".
    Let's try to apply this rule to some examples:
    "a toy(A) of the first dog(B)" = "the first dog's toy"
    "the first contest(A) of the day(B)" = "the day's first contest" (even though as PaulQ noted
    I once was told to avoid giving inanimate objects possessives if possible
    Our small rule has hitherto worked perfectly. But what would happen if I tried to apply it to the "the first day(A) of a contest(B)"? Following the rule I would come out with this:
    "the first day(A) of a contest(B)" = "a contest's first day" (in opposing to the (correct) "the first day's contest")
    Our logic crumbled away in the last variant.

    Can it mean that this construction "the first day's, the second day's etc." stands somehow aside and was created to denote only one thing, namely "the first day of something" and it is why it can't be changed or understood in another way, consequently it is why after my first encounter of this construction I had trouble to understand it trying to apply the logic of "an A of a B" = "a B's A" (though intuition and context (mostly context) explained to me what it could mean, but I still had to quiet my "logical mind")?

    Thanks.
     

    eni8ma

    Senior Member
    English - Australia
    As I and others attempted to show in our previous posts, it is not just first day that fails. First flower pot also fails in this context. First man's finger, leaky flower pot, etc.

    When it came to a big dog's toy, you noticed that it could be with the toy of a big dog or a big toy for dogs. You wondered if that relationship would always work. We have demonstrated that it doesn't. It only works for things where the description works for both objects. That's all - no mystery. :)
     

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    Thank you all for your time, efforts and examples that I'm going to read until they have anchored in my mind for good!

    Another mystery is dispelled. :)
     
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