About the usage of possessive form - a 19th century('s) Cornish Beam Engine

Discussion in 'English Only' started by seanhu, Aug 10, 2015.

  1. seanhu Senior Member

    In my last thread, the discussion about whether there should be an apostrophe after the noun-phrase 800 years in the sentence "...with more than 800 years' history" has aroused my interest.

    However, it is forbidden to discuss in that thread because of off-topic (By the way, I'm not sure about the rightness of this because the two prepositions were connected with each other, I thought of abandoning this expression, but it would also be a learning oppotunity to know whether it is acceptable if you would kindly point it out :)

    I have found an example “a 19th century Cornish Beam Engine”, if it means a Cornish Beam Engine of 19th century, why shouldn't be "a 19th century's Cornish Beam Engine"?

    I just want to find out in what cases could the apostrophe mark be spared, thank you in advance!
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2015
  2. Parla Member Emeritus

    New York City
    English - US
    The phrase "800 years' history" denotes a period of time, a history of 800 years. We could also say "an 800-year history".

    A 19th century Cornish Beam Engine takes no apostrophe because "19th century" here is an adjective phrase "labeling" the engine. It's comparable to "a 2010 Honda Civic" (we wouldn't say "2010's").
  3. Glenfarclas Senior Member

    English (American)
    In addition to what Parla says, it is impossible to write "a [possessive] something," where the determiner "a" is supposed to relate to the later noun instead of the possessive. This is why we cannot say "a my friend," "a John's book," "a New York's street," etc. That is (another reason) why "19th century" cannot be a possessive in that sentence.
  4. seanhu Senior Member

    Thanks for both of you! Especially for Glenfarclas, your explanation enlightened me.

    That is to say the key is the determiners, without them, one can also say "19th century's Cornish Beam Engine", and vice versa, it is also tenable to say "an 800 years history" just like Parla's example "an 800-year history". Is that so?

    By the way, I am kind of desperating to know whether it is acceptable to say "because of off-topic". (∩_∩)~
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2015
  5. ayuda?

    ayuda? Senior Member

    Yes, it is confusing. It should read, “a 19th-century [nineteenth-century] Cornish Beam Engine”, because it is used as an adjective. The hyphen avoids the confusion. [See the link below]
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2015
  6. Glenfarclas Senior Member

    English (American)
    You could theoretically say "the 19th century's Cornish Beam Engine," but the phrase is nonsensical (although grammatical), since it personifies the 19th century and seems to claim that the century possessed one single Cornish Beam Engine. Stick to the adjectival usage: a 19th-century Cornish Beam Engine.

    You also cannot say "an 800 years history." We almost never have adjectives in the plural, so the correct form must be "an 800-year history."
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2015
  7. seanhu Senior Member

    Thank you, I understood.

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