Possessive - using 's with inanimate nouns

Discussion in 'English Only' started by ed800uk, Jun 7, 2006.

  1. ed800uk Member

    UK English
    I'm surprised to find a university's web-site that wants me to stop using the English genitive with inanimates. Such as, for example, "university".

    It's a serious gap in my education. I have never heard of this before.

  2. french4beth

    french4beth Senior Member

    Here's another point of view (found here:
  3. mae Member

    Well, that's a new "rule" for me...if you native speakers don't agree with it...Lately I've been going through a lot of grammar books trying to find an answer to my question, and in none of them was such a stament.
    I'll stick to what I've heard and learnt until now...
  4. ed800uk Member

    UK English
    There are implications for other current threads:

    Three hour's delay is too long.
    Not OK.

    It has to be:
    A delay of three hours...

    I hate the boy's skating on the sidewalk.
    OK, because boy is animate.

    I hate the top's spinning on the table.
    Not OK, because top is inanimate.

    It has to become, according to this "rule":
    I hate the spinning of the top on this table. Ouch!
  5. mae Member

    ed800uk said:
    Three hour's delay is too long.
    Not OK.

    What about...
    Three hours' delay is two long.(like The hotel was ten minutes' drive from the beach or I'll be here in 3 minutes' time)
    A three-hour delay is too long.

    are they ok?

    Bffff....I think it's enough of how English indicates possession for today...
  6. ed800uk Member

    UK English
    Hi, french4beth, unless I'm missing something, I don't think my post has much to do with the "whose/of which" question.

    It is about the use of the apostrophe to denote the genitive.

    The site I quoted wants us never to use the apostrophe except with nouns that are animate.

    The more I read it, the more absurd it seems.

    Is this issue related to the link you posted?
  7. french4beth

    french4beth Senior Member

    The reason that I posted this link is that it discussed the use of inanimate objects + possession using the 'of which' construction (instead of using apostrophes).:idea:

    I thought you wanted to discuss the use of the possessive with inanimate objects... :confused:

    I have found another link that discussive possessive endings ('s') - scroll down to the blue box that begins: "Many writers consider it bad form to use apostrophe -s possessives with pieces of furniture and buildings or inanimate objects in general" (found here).

    I wouldn't have posted the original link if I hadn't thought it was related to your subject - that's way this forum works (only replies relative to threads are encouraged).
  8. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I have come across this peculiar notion before, but never from any source that I respect:)
  9. Hello Ed800UK,

    What a strange rule!

    If a chair doesn't "own" legs why does it have them?

    Admittedly, I would say something like -

    "I knocked my shin on the leg of the chair" rather than on the "chair's leg".

    Having thought a bit more about that I would be happier to say

    "I knocked my shin on the chair leg." - no possessive.

    But: "The ventriloquist's dummy's head fell off" needs an apostrophe. A "dummy" is inanimate.

    :confused: :confused: :confused:

  10. ed800uk Member

    UK English
    About an hour ago, I did what I should have done originally. I emailed my objections to the author. I pointed out that, by the same logic, the possessive adjective "its" should never, ever be used.

    Look at the chair. Its leg is wobbly.

    Look at the chair. The leg of it is wobbly.

    "Its" always refers to an inanimate object, otherwise we'd be using "his" or "hers". If "it" can't "own" something then (according to this warped reasoning) we'd need to use the awful construct "of it", in all circumstances.

    I'll post the reply, if any.

  11. french4beth

    french4beth Senior Member

    What about animate objects, such as animals (especially if we don't know the animal's gender)? Wouldn't a dog lick its fur, or a bird dip its beak into a water dish (for more on possessive pronouns, see #2 here)?
  12. ed800uk Member

    UK English
    Fair enough. But does a dog "own" its fur, any more or less than a chair "owns" its leg. I "own" my possessions, but do I "own" my leg in the same way as the dog or as the chair?

    I'm sorry I started this ;-)

  13. Paty_Ita New Member

    Italy Italian

    I study English (actually American English) at a university in Italy. I clearly remember our native speaker teacher telling us that we can't use the possessive form with inanimate objects.

    Now I see that some native speakers are bewildered... it seems to me so strange because our teacher insisted on this rule.:confused:
  14. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    The fact is that we don't often use 's with a lot of inanimate objects. LRV objects to the chair's leg, as would I. You cant say that this means that its is never used, because we use it of some animate objects, like animals. If I say my computer is taking its time - I'm jokingly suggesting that it's animate. Could I say that chair is getting its colour back? Yes I think I could, and without any jocularity, so the question is complicated.

    We certainly use 's with time, without suggesting that hours and minutes are animate, but there remain many cases where it would be a little bizarre to us 's.

    The steak's juices ran onto the plate :cross:

    The car's brakes aren't working :tick:

    The carpet's colour has faded :tick:

    I wonder what is the guiding principle.
  15. Suehil

    Suehil Medemod

    Tillou, France
    British English
    Having read all these posts two things occur to me. Firstly, it is very often possible to find an alternative to 'an object's ....' and usually that alternative is more elegant.
    Secondly 'its' has no apostrophe, so presumably falls outside this discussion.
  16. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    A gent named Shakespeare

    Troilus and Cressida, Act 5, Scene 8
  17. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    Yes, Cuchu, but Shakespeare often uses personification in the sonnets.
  18. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    I fully expected someone to mention personification. Do you see personification in

    "...his bending sickle's compass come"?

    On a far less serious note, if we accept this "rule" as something other than a strong statement of
    stylistic preference, what will we do with "the dog's bollocks"?
  19. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    They call it the "descriptive genitive" (e.g. "the sun's rays") when it is a property of, or otherwise associated with, an object rather than something it actually owns as such, and the "possessive genitive" when it is truly a genitive ("Matching Mole's computer"). The forms are the same however, either "inflected" (apostrophe "s", e.g. "the moon's reflection") or "periphrastic" (meaning a circumlocution, e.g. "the reflection of the moon").

    The problem is that some purist grammarians do not accept that inanimate objects can use the inflected genitive because that they cannot always be said to possess certain attributes ascribed to them ("a day's pay" being a classic example). This strikes me as a rarified view that any sensible mole can ignore. In any case, there are other grammarians who argue that the genitive has always had more uses than the strict possessive.

    Having said that, I think English speakers quite often obey the rule about not using the inflected genitive for inanimates; I think you may only be able to learn the skill of when to, and when not to, by experience.
  20. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    I thought you might ask that, Cuchu. It depends what you think compass means; I have a picture of outspread hands, like the ends of a pair of compasses; and only people have hands. I glad you concede the point about love.

    I think you will find that dogs, particularly those with bollocks, are not only animate, but often animated.
  21. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    Yes, but indirectly referenced by "his" ("Time's"). Is that what you mean? Sickle is not a personification it is the metaphorical tool of a personified concept, Time.
  22. NancyDunn Member

    USA, English
    Hi ed800uk,

    Could this "rule" so forcefully stated in the university's online style guide but so little known by the anglophones in the forum be one of those those English-language rigidities that derive from the centuries when Latin was the language of the educated elite? When anything one could not do in Latin was self-evidently too vulgar for any English emitted by an educated person? No split infinitives, for example. Or no prepositions at the end of a sentence.

    Are we possibly talking about a university where all the fellows on campus would have been literate in Latin a hundred years ago?

    I don't remember any discussion of this subject in my favorite arbiter of style (see below), and I don't have one handy to check, but I don't feel the least bit undereducated for not knowing this obviously very esoteric usage preference.

    Nowhere I've worked has ever required editors to enforce this particular rule. And so far, no professor, editor, or reviewer has ever ranted about it in the margins of anything I've ever submitted.

    What one institution or publication or company (or socio-economic class) regards as vulgar or absolute misuse, another will regard as current usage. So, when editing or preparing documents to submit for publication, one simply follows the house style, as, for example, detailed on the university's web site.

    When not bound by a house style guide, we can all use our favorite arbiter of style. I prefer, for example, the University of Chicago Manual of Style, which is the generic style guide used by many publishing houses in the United States.

    And when writing in blogs, follow your own conscience, I suppose. Me, I prefer "ten minutes' walk," for its immediacy, to the more verbose and less direct (to my ears) alternatives: "a walk of ten minutes" or "a walk that takes ten minutes," and I doubt that any readers would find the shorter form confusing.

    Keep in mind that a style guide that prohibits the possessive form of an inanimate noun probably also includes a prohibition against contracted forms of verbs (It's going to rain, He's not going along after all...). On the other hand, most people who do marketing writing or any instructional or commercial writing in the US that's intended to seem accessible or "friendly" will have learned to use the contractions. It's all a matter of aiming for the level of language desired by the client or suitable for intended audience.

    The longer I've worked as an editor, the less dogmatic I've became about lagnuage rules, though, of course, I reserve the right to rant about my pet peeves. Elsewhere. (I hope that this lengthy post doesn't qualify as a rant!)

    Interesting how much reaction your question/comment has inspired, don't you think?

  23. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    I chose that particular quote because I thought it had both a personified noun, Time, and one that was not, sickle.

    I agree that it is the metaphorical tool of a personified concept, but I don't think the personification of the sickle's owner,Time, gives the sickle
    any attributes of a person, or makes it an animate object. A tool becomes animate when put into motion by a person, but it lacks animation when in the toolbox or on the workbench.

    We struggled with this subject in another thread recently. Search for "Arkansas" in the CD forum.
    There was a reference in that thread to Maugham's The Razor's Edge.
  24. AWordLover

    AWordLover Senior Member

    Atlanta, Georgia USA
    USA English

    I've heard this rule before, or as I would be more likely to say, I've heard this silly rule before.

    I think a university should be able to have any foolish rule it wishes in its style guide. :)
  25. LouisaB Senior Member

    English, UK
    I'm surprised and shocked to find a university imposing this ridiculous rule, for it is ridiculous.

    The reason it is perfectly acceptable to use 's with an inanimate object is:

    1. 's merely indicates a genitive. Yes, even in Latin, inanimate objects have a genitive - anyone remember 'mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae etc? The genitive means simply 'of something'. It does not have to indicate possession, as only an animate object can possess. The 'pay of a day' doesn't mean anything's owning anything, but it's still a genitive, so in goes the 's.

    2. Many people assume 's must mean a possessive because they don't know the origins of the apostrophe.
    An apostrophe in English only ever indicates one thing - a missing letter. People get understandably confused over this, because not many people learn Anglo-Saxon these days, so don't know what the missing letter is. They recognise it in 'isn't', 'B'ham', 'I'll' etc but don't realise (and why should they?) that John's book is John's book because the genitive ending in Anglo Saxon was '-es' and the 'e' has been omitted. That's why 'the man's' takes an apostrophe, while 'its' (possessive, as opposed to contraction of 'it is') does not. 'Its' is merely a possessive pronoun, just like 'his' - there's no missing letter, hence no apostrophe.

    So it is perfectly acceptable for any noun to take an apostrophe 's' to indicate a genitive - and a missing 'e'. I don't know which university insisted on this rule, but I hope it wasn't one that teaches Anglo-Saxon....

  26. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    This rule is absolute rubbish.

    Highly inflected languages have no problem with a genitive form for a noun that indicates an inanimate object. The apostrophe-s form in English is a holdover of the genitive form in Old English, which was much more inflected than modern English. For example, the word scip was the nominative for "ship", while the genitive singular was scipes -- which passes into modern English as "ship's". Anyone who thinks you cannot correctly say "the ship's rudder" or "the ship's captain" does not know how to speak English.

    It is equally nonsense to say that whose cannot refer to anything other than a person. Whose is the possessive of which as well as of who, and it is perfectly proper to speak of "a mountain whose peak is covered in snow."

    This is hardly a new usage. Here, for example, is a line from the Authorized Version (King James Version) translation of Genesis:
    And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
  27. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    I agree with you in every respect. I didn't mean to say sickle was personified or even animated, although perhaps my first sentence may have given that impression.
  28. river Senior Member

    U.S. English
    I thought the apostrophe suppressed the hi in his - John his book (John's book); the man his book (the man's book).
  29. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Actually, in Old English the genitive of mann, meaning "man", is mannes. You can see this in Beowulf, in which reference is made to "ðæs mannes mód", or "this man's courage."
  30. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    I have heard this explanation, but it seems to be untenable, given the evidence to the contrary. Wikipedia says it is debated, and although the form "the king his horse" did exist it was only for a short time. It also points out that there should also therefore be "the queen her horse", which would result in 'r and there is no such thing!
  31. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
  32. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    New Fowler's Modern English Usage calls this kind of 's the objective genitive.

    Somewhere in one of the many, many other threads about possessive forms (look up possessive in the WR dictionary or search for threads with possessive in the title) this issue has been debated. My last memory was that the "king his horse" theory had been set aside in favour of the Anglo-Saxon -es suffix theory.
  33. jimmyy Senior Member

    My British teacher told us the same. The Saxon-Genitive doesn't go with things, and he gave us an example " the table's leg" is wrong.

    He boasted once that he is writeing for Cambridge papers, so I assumed he is very knowledgeable.

    I have used Murphy's "English Grammar in Use" and there it is stated that with animate nouns the 's can be used, but with things, ideas "we normally use of " for example
    the door of the garage
    the name of the book

    There it is said that 's can be used with organisations (the goverment's decision) and with time expressions.

    Unfortunatelly for me as a non-native english speaker preparing for the TOEFL, it is very confusing which rule to follow, which person to listen to, which book to trust... :( I just hope that during the exam I won't have to make such choices.
  34. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Native speakers use 's with people, organisations and inanimate things.
    BUT - with organisations and inanimate things alternatives to 's are used a lot more often, to the extent that sometimes the 's version sounds very odd.

    This is very difficult to explain briefly, so students are given a guideline that avoids the complications. Then in more advanced instruction, more complexity can be introduced. So the books and the people are not really in conflict - they are addressing different audiences.

    In the exam, if you are in doubt, don't use 's. Find a different way to express what you want to say.
    If it is very difficult to find a satisfactory way to express what you want to say without using 's, then go ahead and use it.
  35. jimmyy Senior Member

    Thank you panjandrum. I would agree with you, only that my english teacher expressley addressed this issue, saying that it's not correct to say the table's leg. And I'm quite sure he didn't mean that only to make it easier for us. On the contrary for many other rules tought on previous english levels he said they were wrong, but not on this one, with the possesive of inanimate objects.

    I understand though that this can be a long debated subject, that there is no right or wrong, there are opinions on both side, only that my teacher was categorical in his advice.

    Coming from an mathematical backround, I think there is another pshicological chalange to accept that there is no right or wrong, and that in the end you may be examined by someone and you may never know which were the criteria they used to examine you. :(
  36. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    In which case your teacher is simply, flatly, and absolutely wrong.

    To say "the table's leg" is perfectly grammatical, and educated native speakers use such forms as this all the time.

    Nonsense. There is certainly a "wrong" here, and that "wrong" is to make the absurd claim that one cannot make a genitive for an inanimate object using the "apostrophe-s" form. As I noted above, there was a genitive for inanimate objects in Anglo-Saxon, and that genitive (which comes down as apostrophe+s) has been consistently and continuously used by native speakers as long as English has existed. It can be found in Shakespeare, in Milton, in Dryden, and in Samuel Johnson; just about any writer you can name has used this form, and this "rule" has never existed except in the minds of people who seem completely unaware of how English has always been spoken and written, and continues to be spoken and written.

    And I shall be just as categorical in telling you that your teacher does not know what he is talking about.
  37. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I agree that we are unlikely to talk about a table's mats or a bathroom's basin. I would, however, happily talk about a fan's blades or a car's wheels. I'm uncertain about a taxi's passengers. I definitely don't want to talk about French's decline as an international language, though I would feel less dubious about talking about civilisation's end.

    Can anyone discern a pattern?
  38. TommyGun Senior Member

    Hi all,
    What's strange, the ngram doesn't confirm that these phrases are the case
    carpet's colour vs. carpet colour
    fan's blades vs. fan blades
    Does it just kind of regional usage?
  39. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    No TG, not a regional usage.

    We talk both of a carpet colour, and of a carpet's colour, but in different circumstances.

    What carpet colour do you like? - of carpets in general. I have a friend who will only buy red carpets. Red is the only carpet colour he likes.

    Talking of an individual carpet we can easily say things like this carpet's colour has faded. That means that the colour of this carpet has faded.

    It's not surprising that you can't find much on the ngrams about this, because not many Google books talk about carpets and their colours.
  40. TommyGun Senior Member

    Thank you Thomas!

    Some examples stump me:
    Why we can say
    the building's foundation
    but can't
    the house's roof

    Does the table's leg sound naturally to you?
  41. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    We can and do say all of these.

    About a century ago, the word legs itself was avoided in polite society, women wore really long skirts, and even tables' legs were normally covered. If "the table's leg" is still unusual, this peculiarity of history may have something to do with it.

    Yes, "the table's leg" does sound natural (not "naturally") to me, but unusual. It works better in the plural since a normal table has more than one leg: "the table's legs".

    The word of and the suffix -'s share many meanings, but there are some meanings of each not shared by the other. I don't know a simple rule, but I believe the key to knowing which fits a given context is in knowing which meanings do and do not fit.
  42. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    In case it's helpful, here's a copy of something I wrote in an earlier thread summarising advice from the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English:
  43. TommyGun Senior Member

    Thanks, a good point! :)
    Actually, the latter example is from Swan "Practical English Usage", the esteemed grammar book.
    Other examples from the book:
    the name of the street (NOT the street's name)
    the back of the room (NOT the room's back)
    the top of the page (NOT the page's top)

    Do you agree that possessive is not acceptable in these phrases?

    Grammar books say the same, that there aren't general rules, but I don't quite believe that because natives from different counties (GB, US, AU) usually agree with one another on acceptance of a concrete usage.
    I'm interested what people think of when they use such possessives and what goes in their mind that prompts them to reject some cases.

    I guess the following:
    When we say the sun's rays, we think of rays, and the sun is considered just as descriptive definition for that rays. We can omit the possessive part without much distorting the meaning.
    The same is for the car's brakes, the carpet's colour.

    In the case of the steak's juices it is important that these juices are of the steak. If we just say The juices ran onto the plate., it would take additional mental effort for the listener to determine what kind of juices in question. So, the steak here is a determiner for juices, and it would be unnatural to use it as a descriptive word.

    Does the above make any sense?
  44. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    For what it's worth, I've changed my view on the steak's juices, though I think I'd be more likely to say the steak juices.

    Don't forget, TG, that these are matters of nuance rather than of hard and fast rules. I wouldn't under all circumstances outlaw the street's name, the room's back, or the page's top. If the page were a small boy, the page's hat would be quite normal, of course.

    I feel that you need to take Loob's very excellent and helpful summary to heart.
  45. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I have no problem with "the street's name".

    "The room's back" and "the page's top" are not good substitutes for "the back of the room" and "the top of the page", but the issue is not the fact that pages and rooms are inanimate but the special meaning of "back of" and "top of".

    "My back" and "the back of me" are both valid phrases, but they generally don't mean the same thing. Ditto for "my top" and "the top of me". There is a meaning of top and back that can be used without an article: e.g in on top of, in back of. I take the top of and the back of to refer to that same, more abstract, meaning of top and back, but the of seems to be necessary to this interpretation. My top and my back almost have to refer to something different.
    I think distortions of meaning are precisely what we are dealing with, but common and uncommon collocations are a part of what allows us to assign meanings to words.

    I am not sure what you mean by omitting the possessive part. "The sun's rays" and "the rays of the sun" seem to be the same thing, or nearly the same thing, but "the sun rays" seems to be something different, some fish maybe.
    The brakes of the car, the brakes in the car, the brakes from the car, the car's brakes: these may all refer to the same brakes, but they don't have to really mean the same thing.
    I don't see a big difference between "the steak's juices" and "the juices of the steak", except that "the steak's juices" are more likely to have already left the steak.
    "The juices are of the steak" sounds funny to me. Do you mean the juices are/come from the steak?
  46. AWordLover

    AWordLover Senior Member

    Atlanta, Georgia USA
    USA English
    I love this topic. Since I last posted in this thread I acquired a degree in linguistics and came to possess a fairly imposing tome on Grammar, "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language", by Randolf Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. Published by Longman in 1985. On page 1277, in section 17.39 they state "With inanimate, in particular concrete, nouns, the of-construction is normally required." But, they go on to say there is a group of inanimate nouns: geographical nouns, nouns telling location, and time that permit the use of the genitive.

    My real point is that the focus has shifted from references like this that are informed almost solely by expert opinion to references that are informed by using computers to analyze large amounts of actual text. The new references use the tools of corpus linguistics. The Longman reference given by Loob above is an example of a corpus driven text. And you can see that real usage does allow the use of the genitive for inanimate objects, but it is rare in real writing.

    As always, style guides are not constrained solely by what educated people actually say and write.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2012
  47. Fern_

    Fern_ Senior Member

    English - British
    The 'rule' of "genitive for animate/'of' for inanimate" seems to be softened as you get into a topic or a text. I've come across numerous examples of 's for inanimate things in academic texts (a source signal's statistics, the law's access control requirements, a molecule's fate), but this is not done at the beginning of a text. However, after you've been discussing the signal/law/molecule etc for a while it becomes a) repetitive to have to spell out the whole '... of the ...' structure every time and b) the signal/law/molecule etc has become your friend.
  48. TommyGun Senior Member

    Really? Could you please give an example when their meanings are different?
    Yes, it was that I meant. :)
  49. TommyGun Senior Member

    Great book. :) Contains the most thorough analysis on genitive I've ever seen.
  50. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    This so-called rule is one thing you cannot blame on Latin. Latin can form the genitive case both from animate and inanimate nouns. It is the only way that Latin can express the possessive relationnship.

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