EN: of / 's (genitive) / adjective - how to translate the possessive "de"

Discussion in 'French and English Grammar / Grammaire française et anglaise' started by AurélienD, Apr 11, 2005.

  1. AurélienD Member

    France, French

    I always wondered and want to be sure whether nouns, when used as adjectives, could be plural or not in English ? How express some distinctions as they exist in French (as below) in English ?

    Examples :
    - Le travail du pompier -> The fireman work
    - Le travail des pompiers -> the firemen work ? fireman work ? The work of firemen ?

    Free me of this old doubt :)

    Moderator note: Multiple threads have been merged to create this one.
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 27, 2013
  2. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    In this case, I think the phrases the fireman's/firemen's work or the work of a fireman/of firemen sound better. I can't explain why. :(
  3. AurélienD Member

    France, French
    Yes, It was a bad example because here an possesive 's' could (should ?) be used.

    Try another example :
    - la couleur de la pomme : the apple colour
    - la couleur des pommes : the apples colour (looks false) ? the colour of apples ? the apple colour ?

    Definitively, "the apples colour" looks wrong. But I want to be sure ! :)
  4. Benjy

    Benjy Senior Member

    Milton Keynes, UK
    English - English
    the colour of the apple
    the colour of the apples

    that is what i would write. the apple's colour could be used of rthe first one if you really wanted :)
  5. la grive solitaire

    la grive solitaire Senior Member

    United States, English
    I hope these will help set your mind at ease... :)

    Your examples are of plural, possessive nouns, so:

    The color of the apples = The apples' color (apples is plural)
    If it were singular, it would be : The apple's color (one apple)

    The work of the firemen = The firemen's work (firemen is plural)
    The song of the children = The children's song (children is plural)
    The song of the birds = The birds' song (birds is plural)

    The locks of the prisons = The prisons' locks
    The locks of the prison = The prison's locks
  6. AurélienD Member

    France, French
    Thank you La Grive for your interest in my problem

    Errr... but i thought the "'s" could only be used without animated thing like humans or animals ?

    I agree with those sentences. No problem. But could not a noun be used as an adjective with an other noun as in 'the bird song' (In French : Adjectivisation du nom) ? Or shall i use 'the bird's song ? Both are correct ? If 'the bird song' is correct, and only in this case, what about plural ? :)

    Finally, I wonder about the sentences like "the song of the bird". Many years ago (Yeah, not so far ;)), my english teacher taugh me this construction was baby-ish and should be banned. She said we must used "the bird's song" in place of. (My teacher could be wrong, I would rather trust a native speaker than her ;))

    Go away wrong ideas ! Today we will crush you and throw you in hell !!
    :p Mmmm... I think I'm a little too enthusiast
  7. RobInAustin Senior Member

    Austin, Texas USA
    US English, French
    Your teacher was referring to active vs passive voice. It is always better to say "the bird's song" "the apple's color" etc. to say the song of the bird, or color of the apple sounds poetic, old fashioned, and in many cases odd.

  8. LV4-26

    LV4-26 Senior Member

    Right. Nobody has really answered this question. I have no definite idea about this matter. But I would think that
    the fireman work can be said for le travail du pompier as well as for le travail des pompiers.
    After all, it comes to the same, doesn't it. It's the same work.
    Now I'm not sure your example is correct, Aurelien. I'm not sure "fireman" is one of those nouns that can be used as adjectives. And this may be the reason why everybody thinks you're talking about possessive constructions.
  9. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Clearly, sometimes you can use nouns as adjectives, and sometimes you can't. Fireman work and bird song sound wrong to me, although I can't explain why. I think you should look for better examples of nouns used as adjectives. Here are a few I posted in another thread:

    Adjectivized nouns: computer programmer, shoe shop, Boston University, backseat driver, Sunday school, home schooling, water cooler, air conditioning.

    The question is: why not "computer's programmer, shoe's shop, Boston's University, backseat's driver, Sunday's school, home's schooling, water's cooler, air's conditioning"?
  10. RobInAustin Senior Member

    Austin, Texas USA
    US English, French
    the fireman work is not appropriate. Fireman work, meaning "the work of a fireman" is not appropriate.

    "Bird song" is a bit of an exception as it has come to mean The song of a bird. However, you would never song "the dog bark" or "the cat meow"

    Your best rule, frankly is not to use this construction (the work of, the song of, etc) at all. If you never use it, you will never make a mistake. It is always better, frankly NOT to use it, even as a native speaker. Always say "the firemen's work" "the birds' song" "the children's singing" etc.

  11. AurélienD Member

    France, French
    If I try to sum up :
    - 's is used with person (or animals) "the bird's song"
    - Adjectivized nouns : only with non-human or non-animals nouns "computer programmer". And its this case, no plural form for the adjectivized noun ?

    If all of this is correct. It was what I thought ... :D but, at least, now it's clear :)

    Clearly typical French construction...
  12. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    "Arms race"? :)

    I'm not sure you can put it that way. That may be an oversimplification.
    But I do agree with RobInAustin that translating "X de Y" as "Y X" is usually a bad idea--a common error of foreigners. It only seems to be acceptable in certain set phrases.
    When in doubt, it's better to translate "X of Y" or "Y's X". The latter should be used when some kind of possession is implied.
  13. LV4-26

    LV4-26 Senior Member

    Yes, these examples work much better. And, as you can see, Aurelien, the singular/plural issue is "sans objet" (purposeless ?) in those cases. Which is what I'd supposed in the first place.
    A computer programmer programs computers
    A shoe shop sells shoes.
    But "Boston" is singular and "water" and "air" are uncountable...
    The adjectivised nouns can refer to sing or pl objects, depending on the context.
    The sing/pl issue (which was your very first question, wasn't it, Aurelien ?) is only relevant with the possessive case, not with the adjectivised noun.
  14. esteban Senior Member

    Colombia Spanish
    Hi everyone,

    I'd say my next issue is basic stuff which I'm supposed to be aware of :( but the truth is that now I'm having serious doubts about it.
    So here's what I want to ask: in general when I have the choice between either choosing 's or "of", is there a specific rule that tells me which one is better or is it up to me to make a decision?
    Please consider the following examples, how would you translate them?

    "L'anniversaire du père de Marie", "Les crocs du lion du cirque de Moscou sont assez impressionants!"

    Thanks for your help
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 27, 2013
  15. Tabac Senior Member

    Pacific Northwest (USA)
    U. S. - English
    "Marie's father's birthday" is fine: "The birthday of Marie's father" sounds better to me.

    "The fangs of the lion" at..." is probably the best choice.

    No rule that I know of. Just what sounds better without too many 's or of.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 13, 2013
  16. RobInAustin Senior Member

    Austin, Texas USA
    US English, French
    Marie's Father's birthday.
    The Moscow Circus' lions have impressive fangs.

    Of usually is best used only for a place...ie: The people of Marseille have a distinct accent.

    To say "The birthday of Marie's father" is not the best English, it sounds foreign to native speakers. To use "of" for possession is passive voice. to use 's is active voice and active voice is usually preferred.

  17. esteban Senior Member

    Colombia Spanish
    Thank you Rob and thank you Tabac,

    Here's one more question for you Rob, you wrote "The Moscow Circus..." did you omit one 's/of between "Moscow" and "Circus" on purpose? If so, would it be also right to write "The Circus of Moscow..." (or maybe write this sentence using an 's)?
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 13, 2013
  18. RobInAustin Senior Member

    Austin, Texas USA
    US English, French
    to be 'most' correct in English, it is considered redundant to use " 's " after a word ending in s. You need only use '. The Princess' crown, The Circus' lions...etc.
    Now many people use s's, and it is generally accepted, but isn't strictly "proper".

    You can say "The Circus of Moscow", but in English that specific thing is properly called "The Moscow Circus".
  19. Caronium Member

    Canada, QC
    Canada - French ~ English
    This is from my notebook from an English grammar course I had a few years ago:

    The possessive case ('s) is used of:
    • people, countries or animals (the girl's hair)
    • ships, boats, planes, trains, cars and other vehicles, though "of" is safer (the ship's bell, the train's heating system)
    • in time expressions (today's paper)
    • in expressions of money+worth (two dollars' worth)
    • in the expression for+noun+sake (for heaven's sake)
    "of" is used for possession with inanimate "possessors" except those listed above
  20. ihaveaquestion Member

    france, french
    in what case can I translate the french de (un systeme de culture, un facteur de production) by of, and in what case can I just put the two words without transition.

    Should i say a culture system or a system of culture? a production factor or a factor of production?

    And what when there are two de in a row, for example "l'analyse des systèmes de production" ? is it the analysis of production systems, the analysis of systems of production (heavy no?!)

  21. Monsieur Hoole Senior Member

    Canada English
    as a general rule, the shortest option is the best. you also want to avoid repeating of, as it sounds increasingly awkward. i'm sure there's the odd exception (often related to the jargon of any given field), but that'll do the job 98% of the time.

  22. sibaris Member


    Il y a il une régle pour savoir quand est ce qu’on met « ‘s » ou « sometihng of something » ? merci
    Exemple : j’ai traduit
    This heritage development of the site was discussed at the time of the scientific and political conference in 1994, about proposing solutions for the future in term of nature conservancy, starting from the example of the Orx Wetlands.
    Pour :
    C'est-à-dire qu’à partir de l’exemple de l’évolution des paysages des Marais d’Orx, il s’agissait de proposer des solutions pour l’avenir en terme de protection de la nature.

    D’autrs examples où je ne sais jamais : What is necessary to retain of this site’s storry is the will to rebuild and to protect a particular nature, symbol of a last ecological history, on an area strongly affected by two successive times of agricultural prosperity and decline.
    Thus, this area very presents at the same time the marks of, in one hand, an ecological development like the small islands of the Southern Wetlands created of all parts, characteristic of the genesis and the evolution of the Aquitanian coastal systems, and in another hand, some vestiges from the prosperous economic and social time like the old dams and the old smallholdings.
  23. Bibouillette Member

    France (français)
    I have the same question... For example, with very easy sentence I always hesistate :
    - The end of the film
    - The film's end.

    And with human, don't you prefer :
    The book of Lucy
    Lucy's book ?
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 30, 2016
  24. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Some nouns have developed adjectival power: we say production systemps as well as systems of production. Economists talk of factors of production, not of production factors.

    In your examples, I'd say: a cultural system, or a system of culture. The first suggests to my ear general culture, the second culture of the earth (agriculture).

    The analysis of production systems is fine, but people might also say the analysis of systems of production. The repeated of is a bit clumsy, but not impossibly so.

    Either is possible. I think the end of the film is more usual and natural.

    Yes, certainly: Lucy's book. I think the 's works particularly well with short words and names - though we do say Nebuchanezzar's dream. The dream of Nebuchanezzar sounds a bit like the title of a book or an opera. That form has added drama and importance, which you'd often want to lose.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 30, 2016
  25. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
  26. rabbit on nerves

    rabbit on nerves New Member

    not so far

    there's something I've been wondering about for a looong time : when should you use «of» or «'s» to express "possession" in english?

    for example, are those two sentences correct?

    John's car is blue
    The car of John is blue

    what about those ones?

    the tires of my car are
    my car's tires are worn

    does the choice depend on the subject, like if you're talking about a human or not?

    thanks :)

    en VF : je me demande quand on doit utiliser «of» ou «'s» pour exprimer, pour une personne ou un object, le fait de posséder quelque chose :D
  27. jann

    jann co-mod'

    English - USA
    All of your sentence examples are reasonable except "the car of John is blue" :cross:, which, though grammatically correct, is not something we would actually say. :)
  28. rabbit on nerves

    rabbit on nerves New Member

    not so far
    "my car's tires are worn" is correct? I didn't think it would be lol
  29. clairet

    clairet Senior Member

    London & Bordeaux
    England & English (UK version)
    Yes, it's correct.
  30. SwissPete

    SwissPete Senior Member

    94044 USA
    Français (CH), AE (California)
    Sometimes the problem can be solved by using neither of nor 's. In most situations, saying my tires are worn would be easily understood.
  31. Ofboir Member

    Français (France)
    Hi !

    I am writing a report for an internship, and I have little doubts. Each time I want to write a sentence that would use de, du or de la in french, I hesitate.

    I think the form " 's " is used just for a person, like :
    Lucy's dog.
    Ok, this one's easy !

    But when it comes to technical discussion, I get confused ...
    For information, the report is talking about programming a simulator. But anyway, it doesn't make a lot of difference.

    Here are some examples (I generally hesitate between the 3 forms below) :

    Le développement du simulator
    The development of the simulator ? (This one sounds ugly to me)
    The simulator development ?
    The simulator's development ? (I think it's incorrect, but it doesn't sound that bad to me)

    L'efficacité de la politique de navigation
    The efficiency of the navigation policy ?
    The navigation policy efficiency ?

    And there are a lot more ...
    (the size of the city, the traffic lights synchronization, the limits of software X ...)

    Anyway, if you know formal rules for that, or just some correct examples, it would be great.

    Thanks !
  32. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    English (England)

    People usually take "'s", as in your example "Lucy's dog".

    Otherwise "of" is normally preferred - all of your examples above with this are fine ("the development of the simulator" is fine).

    I've been pondering on "the traffic lights' synchronization" (note the apostrophe!!) which sounds ok - but "the synchronization of the traffic lights" would also be fine, and I think better. Equally "the simulator's development" is also ok, but I think "the development of the simulator" is better (to my ear).

    When you have "nom de nom" in French this is where we can concatenate nouns in English - for example "un garçon de café" - "a café waiter" (definitely not "a café's waiter" or "a waiter of (a) café").

    L'efficacité de la politique de navigation mixes the last two points and so your The efficiency of the navigation policy is the right one.

    Quantities also take "of", like French "une bouteille d'eau" "a bottle of water", "une tasse de thé" "a cup of tea", cf "une tasse à thé" "a tea-cup".

    I think that gets most of them - and are at least useful generalisations, I hope (I'm not claiming it works all the time - a dangerous thing to do on these forums!!).

    You might want to try the English only forum for opinions on any difference between phrases such as "the limits of the software" and "the software's limits" - as I say above I think that the "of" phrases are more usual - well perhaps more formal at least. I'm not sure if there are further nuances people might discern.
  33. acme_54

    acme_54 Member

    Valencia, Spain
    Correction: It is SOMETIMES better to say "the bird's song". Not "always".
  34. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    I think that bird + song is a special case. In fact the word birdsong exists (it's the title of a novel by Sebastian Faulks ). But bird's song, birds' song and song of the bird(s) are all perfectly good and not at all babyish. But they'll be used in different circumstances. E.g.

    I have studied the house sparrow. This bird's song is unusual...
    I was woken by the song of the bird that sits on my windowsill each morning.
    Bird song is one of nature's wonders.

    But nouns when used as adjectives can never be in the plural because English adjectives have no plural. Football, not feetball:cross:! Manpower, not menpower:cross:.

    So - la couleur de la pomme : the colour of the apple
    - une couleur de pomme : apple colour (not very common, because there is no single colour that fits, but tomato colour is common)
    - la couleur des pommes : the colour of apples
  35. CapnPrep Senior Member

    It is a useful rule of thumb to tell learners of English, particularly French-speaking learners of English, that the first noun in a noun-noun compound (i.e. the attributive noun) is usually in the singular. It is unhelpful to tell them that attributive nouns "can never be in the plural" and to claim, inaccurately, that this has something to do with them being adjectives.

    Since this thread was started in 2005, several others have have appeared that may be useful to anyone who comes across this one, for example:
    FR: star wars / stars war

    EN: email scams / scam emails - nouns used as adjectives

    And there's a list of similar threads in the English Only forum here.
  36. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Yes, but I had my fingers crossed when I said 'never' ;).

    Seriously, this rule has so few exceptions, and the error of breaking it is so common, that I would advise any French-speaking beginner to consider it as virtually absolute.

    And I stick by my argument that these nouns in apposition/adjectival nouns perform the work of an adjective (they describe the noun) and behave like an adjective (they come before the noun and have no plural), so they are in fact, to all intents and purposes, adjectives. What else would you call them?
  37. CapnPrep Senior Member

    I would call them nouns.
  38. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Sorry, that won't do.

    Let's take the word "table". Sometimes it's a noun (The cup is on the table = la table); sometimes it's a verb (The chairman tabled the proposal = présenter (BE) or ajourner (AE)) and sometimes it's an adjective (A jug of table cream = fraîche liquide (AE)). Likewise "house" which can be translated as la maison, abriter or interne (house magazine = journal interne). This is how English words behave.

    To call these words "nouns" means inventing a whole new meaning for the word "noun". And it doesn't help French learners either.
  39. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Sorry, but I already addressed your objections in one of the threads I linked to above. You may enjoy repeating yourself; I do not.

    French learners already know about noun-noun compounds in their own language. Timbres-poste, compte chèques, navette aéroport, chèque vacances, … It is clear that the modifying element (which is the second word in French) is a noun, not an adjective. What learners need to be told is that the same structure is very widespread in English (although individual French examples will not necessarily translate directly into English), and that unlike in French, the modifying noun in English is usually but not always in the singular, even when the sense is plural.
  40. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    CapnPrep's answer in the email scams thread is pretty definitive.

    I think the big reason you can tell that the noun modifying the other noun is a noun is that it can be plural: arms dealer, media theory, systems administrator. Adjectives can't be plural.

    Another thing that would happen is that any adjectives modifying that first noun would suddenly jump ship from adjectives and become adverbs, if the noun became an adjective: small-arms dealer ("small" would be an adverb, so I ought to be able to re-write it as "slightly arms dealer"), Scandinavian design store ("Scandinavianly designed store"?), Computer Systems Administrator (now there's a noun that's supposed to be an adverb).

    Perhaps it's best A) to admit that this entire question of "modifying" is a little vague, since almost every part of a sentence modifies almost every other and B) to jump on this "nouns can modify nouns too" bandwagon.

    Also, articles obviously modify nouns and are not adjectives, if you need a clearer counter-example to your rule, Keith.
  41. alogbe Member

    English (UK)
    AurélienD: I don't have a complete answer to this. But it is certainly not true that the possessive "'s" can be used only with "animate" nouns: you may talk about a car's appearance, the book's theme, the building's roof, etc.

    There can be two possibilities, both correct, but with different meanings:

    - a computer programmer is someone who writes programs for computers generally;

    - the computer's programmer is the person who programmed this particular computer.

    Similarly: "this is John Smith, the aircraft designer" means that's his job; "this is John Smith, the aircraft's designer" means he designed the aircraft we are talking about.
  42. Giordano Bruno

    Giordano Bruno Senior Member

    English, England
    Hi Keith,

    Better late than never. An important exception to your rule concerns irregular plurals. You may talk of "teeth marks" but not "claws marks", "a mice infested barn", but not "a rats infested barn".
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 28, 2013
  43. romano5 New Member

    In sports I've noticed that most of the times the apostrophe is omitted. Is It because there's no need for one because it's not a genitive form (a noun used as an adjective)?

    the Champions League
    The Lakers team
    Arsenal players
  44. clairet

    clairet Senior Member

    London & Bordeaux
    England & English (UK version)
    I think the conclusion from the previous discussion in this thread is that it is more useful to think of such phrases in terms of nouns modifying nouns than in terms of nouns used as adjectives. There is nothing particular about sports in this respect. See Timpeac's and lucas-sp's posts for a general explanation.
  45. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    The only reason that "sports" come up is because many team names are plurals (Lakers, Bears, 49ers, Steelers, Bulls, Mets...). So you'll commonly see "the Lakers/Bears/Niners/Steelers/Bulls/Mets defense" or whatever.
  46. Savi77186 New Member

    French (from france)
    Hey, i am currently studying old and modern english at my university and sometimes it looks as though i am writing things by heart and this is my problem, i would like to understand why, so as for me referring to the title i have troubles expressing "the ownership"

    1 st example : "harry's bag" = "the bag that belongs to Harry" BUT could i say "the bag of Harry" ?
    2 nd example: "harry's reaction" and "The reaction of Harry"

    in the second example the reaction belongs to Harry since it is his reaction and so does the first example, the bag belongs to harry so i hope you could find out about what is my problem.

    May you guys help me to find a way to figure them out so as not to make mistakes further in time ? (I thank you in advance).

    Have a nice day, Thanks for reading :)
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2015
  47. djweaverbeaver Senior Member

    English Atlanta, GA USA

    In both cases, it should be the 's possessive: Harry's bag and Harry's reaction. In general, when the owner is a human, many but not all animals, a country, an orgranization made up o people, we tend to use this form to show possession. You could say The reaction of Harry, but I think it would depend on the context and sentence structure. I think you might find this explanation (en français) quite helpful. This link also provides other useful examples.
  48. Savi77186 New Member

    French (from france)
    Thank you @djweaverbeaver because i was watching the TV news about usain bolt's 200M victory and the speaker clearly said "Oh my god no...usain failed, the reaction of bolt was amazing etc..." i do think that i clearly heard it that's why that pissed me off cause i could not understand why he said that which made me create an account here in order to ask native speakers, plus

    QUESTION 1: my teacher wants me to avoid using apostrophes within my essays (formal) so how could i avoid them in order to express the ownership ?is there any other way than using the verb "to belong" ?

    QUESTION 2: i looked at the link that you gave me but guess what i may be a dumb but i don't get it well, maybe you could gelp once again, what's the difference example between

    1: The reputation of Madonna is amazing
    2: Madonna's reputation is amazing.

    1: the man's arm
    2: the arm of the man

    Thank you in advance :)
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2015
  49. djweaverbeaver Senior Member

    English Atlanta, GA USA
    Hi again @Savi77186 ,

    Just reading "the reaction of Bolt" doesn't sound very natural to me. I would've said "Bolt's reaction...", but then again, I'd have to hear it for myself to know if this use makes sense. On the page it doesn't look like something a native speaker would say.

    I'm not quite why your teacher wants you to avoid apostrophes in essays. The s form of the possessive case has nothing to do with formality. Furthermore, there might be situations where not using it would produce something that's not grammatically correct, as in some of the examples towards the bottom of the second link I posted. The only apostrophe that would not use in formal writing is the one found in contraction: can't, shouldn't, I'm, gov't etc. In formal writing, you should always spell out these contractions: cannot, should not, I am, government, etc.

    As to your last question, there is no difference between "The reputation of Madonna" and "Madonna's reputation" in your two sentences; they are equally correct. However, adding other elements to the sentence could make one formulation possible and another not. Consider the sentence given in that first link:
    The reputation of Madonna, the American singer, is amazing.
    In this sentence, the American singer is an appositive, or it stands in apposition to Madonna. (Apposition is when two noun phrases, here Madonna and the American singer, are next to each other in a clause and refer to the same person or thing. Check this link for more on this.) This apposition explains why the of possessive form is correct whereas the s possessive form is not. With the s form, the apposition is impossible because reputation and the American singer do not refer to the same thing:
    Madonna's reputation, the American singer, is amazing. :cross:
    (reputation the American singer, no apposition).
    I hope this helps you to understand that particular example.
  50. Nattie

    Nattie Member

    French - France
    Hi, sorry to update such an old thread but I have read all the posts and still cannot seem to find the answer I need! From what I understood this "'s or of" thing is more of a "does it sound okay" thing and does not have detailed rules, so I absolutely do not know what to choose in my case (and am even more confused than before to be honest)...
    Would you (natives) say "the creation of the museum" or "the museum's creation" ?
    Thank you!

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