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Concourse 2

The genitive in English



What is the genitive case?

The genitive is a case which is usually understood to refer to ownership of something.  As we shall see, however, a better definition encompasses rather more and it is a case expressing at least:

Usually in English, case is unmarked so, if you have followed the guide to case on this site, you will know that although these sentences express case:

  1. The man kissed the woman
  2. The woman kissed the man

In English, we only know who did what to whom by the order of the words.  The subject comes first in both sentences so we know that is the doer of the action.  The object follows the verb so we know that is the receiver of the action.  If we reverse the order, we reverse the sense.
In many languages, the nouns (man and woman) or the article (the) would be identifiable as referring either to the subject or the object of the verb.  They would be described as nominative (the subject) and accusative (the object).
Many will assert that English does not, for this reason, have a case-structured grammar and, apart from the use of the pronoun system, that is generally true.

The exception in English is that the genitive case is marked and it is marked in four ways:

  1. By the inclusion of an 's' preceded or followed by an apostrophe as in, e.g.:
        The woman's property
  2. By a periphrastic expression with the preposition of as in:
        The property of Mrs Smith
  3. By a possessive determiner as in:
        Her property
  4. By a possessive pronoun as in:
        The property is hers

Modern English does not inflect any other item to show the genitive case so the object noun is unmarked (the word property and the article the remain unchanged throughout).
Other languages will mark the noun and the article and may often inflect other items such as any adjectives in the same way to show the genitive (and often other cases).
The guide to case identifies at least nine other common cases in a range of languages and there are more that it does not consider.

feet on case

The genitive in English

with his feet on her case  

The genitive in English is often called the possessive case but the situation is a bit more complicated as was stated at the outset than just indicating possession.
An example is

The reaction of the man to the woman's kiss was unexpected.

This tells us whose reaction and whose kiss we are talking about.  It also exemplifies the inadequacy of talking about possessives in English because it is not likely that we see a reaction or a kiss as something one possesses.
We have here two forms of the genitive:

Here are five examples of the use of the genitive in English.  Can you fill in the middle column with what relationship between the nouns the case is indicating?  Click on the table when you have an answer.

genitive task
(Source: Quirk et al, 1972:193)

So the genitive in English has four other uses in addition to showing possession.  Other languages will work differently so you need to use the analysis to make sure you are presenting and analysing things accurately and not allowing your learners to believe that the form in English is just to do with ownership.

Even the possessive use can be subdivided and some languages will use a different form to distinguish between, for example:
    John's car
    John's weight
because in the first case the possession is not absolutely fixed and in the second it is.  The distinction may be described as alienable vs. inalienable, respectively.  There is a little more on this below because the way that possession is expressed in English is also affected by the concept of alienability.


The five meanings

At the outset, we identified four possible types of genitive in English and now we have added a fifth, the objective use of the genitive.  Here they are, explained with examples:


1. The possessive genitive

If we can paraphrase a statement using the verb have, we are normally talking about a possessive use of the genitive.  Even here, however, the concept of possession is not appropriate in all cases.
It is clear that in:
    That's the child's toy
The possessive is natural because we can rephrase the clause with
    The child has / owns that toy
We cannot, however, easily rephrase:
    The vicar's brother
    The vicar owns a brother
    The vicar has a brother
is a natural rephrasing.
    Jupiter's orbit
is not the equivalent of
    Jupiter has an orbit

There is one more important distinction to be made here and it is a distinction that many languages rely on quite heavily: alienable and inalienable possession.  Briefly:

Some languages, as we noted, make more of this distinction and will not allow verbs to cross the divide.


2. The subjective genitive

The subjective genitive refers to the nature of the subject of a clause.  For example:
    John's disappearance
can be rephrased as
    John disappeared
    Mary's disagreement
can be
    Mary disagreed
It is clear in this case that we are not talking about possession in any sense but about the subject of the imagined verb.
There is no useful way that we can attribute ownership to either the disagreement or the disappearance in examples like this so calling this a possessive at all is misleading.


3. The genitive or origin

Here we are considering the source of the noun.  For example:
    The court's decision
can be paraphrased as
    The decision the court produced
    His uncle's telephone call
clearly is a call that originated from his uncle.
Again, possession per se plays no role.


4. The objective genitive

The second of these uses of the genitive, above, referred to the subject but this type of genitive refers to the object of the clause that we can make by paraphrasing the expression.  For example:
    The arches are the bridge's support
can be paraphrased as
    The arches support the bridge
    Susan's arrest
    Someone arrested Susan
No sense of possession is present.
We will note here and below that some ambiguity can arise concerning whether a genitive refers to the subject (type 2., above) or the object (this category).  For example, in:
    The doctor's examination
most will assume the subjective use and be able to paraphrase this as
    The doctor examined
However, in:
    The man's investigation
it is unclear without context and co-text whether the correct paraphrase is:
    Someone investigated the man (an objective use)
    The man investigated something or someone (a subjective use)


5. The descriptive genitive

In this case, paraphrasing usually means a use of some kind of adjectival, classifying or post-modifying expression.  For example:
    A Master's degree
refers to the type of degree and could be rephrased using a classifier as
    A post-graduate degree
    The teachers' room
    The room set aside for teachers
No sense, except very marginally, of possession is involved although the second example could be paraphrased as
    The teachers have a room
but not as
    The teachers own a room.


The flexibility of the genitive in English

The following draws on Huddleston et al (2002:474) to demonstrate the large range of meanings that the genitive in English can signal.  It is important to do so because other languages, most in fact, do not share the structures and prefer to express the relationships encoded by the genitive in English in other ways.
The examples here all use the genitive 's construction but that need not be the preferred choice for all the examples.
The left-hand columns contain example expressions and the right-hand columns are used to illustrate, not define, the meanings encoded by the genitive structure.

Example Signalling   Example Signalling
John's black hair a physical attribute her father's first book human creation
Peter's elder brother a blood relationship her father's obituary topic
Jean's husband a non-blood relationship her father's illness suffering / undergoing
the woman's boss / deputy a hierarchical relationship the room's furnishings containing
the boy's friends a social relationship last year's fashion the time of
Mary's team membership the element's radiation natural creation
the company's rehearsal performance the building's windows constituent part
Fred's house ownership the computer's monitor associated part
John's embarrassment emotional state the argument's origins cause
her father's letter origin the war's consequences result

As you see, they are extremely variable and not confined to the five categories we have already identified although many may be considered subsets of those.
It is perilous to assume either that the meanings will be encoded in similar ways in other languages or that the meanings will be easily grasped by learners of English.  Some will, some won't.


The four marked forms

We identified above the four forms which signal a genitive and they were:

  1. Possessive determiners
  2. Possessive pronouns
  3. The genitive 's' (often called the Saxon genitive)
  4. The of genitive (a periphrastic formulation)

Forms 1. and 2. can be handled together because they refer to the same kind of issue.

The genitive determiner and pronoun system is defective in English as this table shows:

Person, gender and number possessive determiner pronoun
First person singular
(all genders)
my mine
First person plural
(all genders)
our ours
Second person
(all genders, all numbers)
your yours
Third person singular masculine his
Third person singular feminine her hers
Third person singular neuter its -
Third person plural
(all genders)
their theirs

The system is defective in comparison to many other languages because:

  1. Only the third person singular has any gender marking and even that is defective because the same word (his) serves as both a determiner and a pronoun.
  2. The second person shows no distinction for number, familiarity or gender with only one determiner (your) and one pronoun (yours).
  3. There is no pronoun for the third person singular neuter at all.  We cannot say, in English:
        Where did that screw come from?
        *It is its.

Many other languages are a lot more sophisticated (and complicated).
For example, French shows a distinction in determiners (ma or moi) depending on the gender of the noun but has the same form (à moi) for the pronoun.  French, too, distinguishes between forms of the second-person pronoun depending on familiarity (the tu-vous distinction) and German does much the same also having a plural form of the familiar which French lacks (euer).
Other languages may have separate forms for various genders, levels of familiarity and numbers and some are very complex indeed with lots of case, gender and number inflexions or separate forms.
Comparatively, English is very simple but the distinction between the pronoun and determiner forms can create difficulties as does the lack of certain pronouns and determiners.


The two main genitive constructions

the contents of the flask
the flask's contents

The lack of complexity in the pronoun and determiner system is a bonus for learners but it is made up for by the difficulty associated with a peculiarity almost unique to English, namely, two ways to show the genitive on nouns: the Saxon genitive 's' and the of-structure.


Which form to use?

English is quite unusual in having two genitive forms to call on and most languages make do with just the one.  Deciding which to use is not at all easy.

write Task:
Which of the following are normally not acceptable?  Jot down the letters (a to x) of the ones you wouldn't accept.
Click here when you have a list.

  1. the car's cost
  2. the cost of the car
  3. the pencil of Mary
  4. Mary's pencil
  5. the government's policy
  6. the policy of the government
  1. the dog's ears
  2. the ears of the dog
  3. the future of the country
  4. the country's future
  5. London's parks and gardens
  6. the parks and gardens of London
  1. the town's inhabitants
  2. the inhabitants of the town
  3. a day's work
  4. the work of a day
  5. my life's ambition
  6. the ambition of my life
  1. the legs of the chairs
  2. the chair's legs
  3. the children's toys
  4. the toys of the children
  5. the house's roof
  6. the roof of the house


Why should this be?

Traditionally, the explanation is that we use the periphrastic structure with of for inanimate objects and the 's or s' structure with animate ones but that is not at all the end of the story.
If the rule were so simple, then London's parks and gardens, a day's work and the country's future would all be wrong.

write Task:
Can you figure out a better set of rules?  What do you tell your learners?
Click here when you have something noted down.

The double genitive

Double genitives, with a marker attached to more than one entity are reasonably common and uncontroversial.  We can  encounter, therefore:
    John's parents' car is parked outside
and so on.
This can even apply to three entities as in:
    John's parents' car's battery is flat
but that is the limit cognitively with which most people can happily deal.

However, a double genitive applied to only one entity is something on which generally speaking grammarians will frown.
It is averred, therefore that:
    This is a friend of Peter's
    That is a book of my brother's
    Piglet is a friend of Winnie the Pooh's
are malformed and should be rephrased as
    This is Peter's friend
    That is a book of my brother
    Piglet is is a friend of Winnie the Pooh

and in any other way that allows only one genitive marker.
They are, nevertheless, quite commonly heard and go by unremarked, despite the obviously flawed nature of the second redundant genitive marker.

In fact, the double genitive marker is not only common and unremarkable, it is obligatory with certain structures.
There is, for example, no way in which:
    She's the only friend of theirs who came to the wedding
where the genitive marking occurs once with the of-formulation and once more with the use of the possessive pronoun theirs, can be sensibly rephrased to avoid the issue.  It cannot, for example be replaced with:
    *She's the only friend of them that came to the wedding
or with:
    *She's the only their friend who came to the wedding
This use of an obligatory double genitive is confined to human referents for the marker but it is unavoidable and unavoidably redundant.
We may be right to caution against the use of the double genitive with non-human referents as in:
    That is book of the library's
because that is easily rephrased without the double marking but for human references, no such prohibition can be sustained.
Had the English language a powerful cultural overseer such as the Academie Francaise, the issue would doubtless have been resolved in favour of its avoidance.
You may see the double genitive described in other terms as the pleonastic genitive, oblique genitive or post-genitive.  Whatever it is called, it remains a grammarians' itch.


Avoiding the genitive: noun adjuncts

The bull fight or corrida de toros  

In many languages, it is exceptional or impossible to use a noun to modify another and that's why the Spanish translation of bull fight uses the genitive preposition de to make corrida de toros.  Not so in English.
We saw above that although many genitive constructions are permissible using the 's / s' formulation with inanimate objects, many are clumsy and produce unacceptable phrasing, so while most will accept
    the book's cover
    the picture's frame
    the door's colour
and so on, other uses of the genitive inflexion are much more questionable and they may include:
    ?the desk's leg
    ?the window's pane
    ?the computer's keyboard
and so on.  In these cases, there is a choice to be made and one option, as we saw, involves using the of-formulation and constructing:
    the leg of the desk
    the pane of the window
    keyboard of the computer
etc.  However, these sorts of expressions are also perceived by many as somewhat clumsy.
The other option is more elegant and simply involves using the noun to classify or categorise the other so we can make:
    the desk leg
    the window pane
    the computer keyboard
and so on.
This use of nouns as classifiers is referred to as making them noun adjuncts and you may find them referred to as attributive nouns, qualifying nouns, noun (pre)modifiers or apposite nouns.  This is an elegant solution which needs to be taught because many languages simply cannot do it.  That may partly explain why mistranslations abound in signs directing English speakers to The Port of Calais or The Airport of Kalamata.
Thus it is that we see, for example:
    Luton Airport
rather than the clumsier The Airport of Luton or Luton's Airport
There is more on the use of noun adjuncts in the guide to partitives and classifiers, linked below.

man dog

Phrase modification: the phrasal possessive

The man in the park's dog  

English is, again, unusual in allowing the genitive 's' structure to be appended to a whole noun phrase after the post-modification.  We allow, at least in speech, therefore:
    The woman in black's husband
    The girl in room six's note
    The people from Austria's complaint

and so on.
This is not immediately intuitive for most learners.

The same constraints concerning the types of nouns which are allowed with this construction apply so many would not accept:
    ?The table in the corner's leg
To avoid the informality of such expressions, the alternative genitive construction is preferred in writing and formal speech:
    The husband of the woman in black
    The note from the girl in room six
    The complaint by the people from Austria

but this breaks the rule above concerning the naturalness of using the 's' genitive with people.
The issue is one of phrase constituents and, because we perceive the whole of the modified noun phrase as the subject or object of the verb, we avoid, for example:
    *The woman's in black husband
because it is nonsense so we prefer:
    The woman in black's husband
and also
    The man's dog in the park
because that ascribes the modification to the wrong noun and implies that the man is not in the park so we would also prefer:
    The man in the park's dog
It can also lead to absurdity as in:
    The woman's eyes in the corner


Warning: when of is not a genitive signal

The prepositional phrase of + noun is not, of course, always a marker of the genitive.  In the following examples, no genitive is intended and no replacement with 's, however unnatural sounding, can be accepted.
    the City of London
    the news of the birth
    the love of money
    a man of integrity
    memories of childhood

What is happening here is that the noun is being post-modified by a prepositional phrase describing an attribute and no genitive sense can be assumed.
For more examples of how a prepositional phrase can be used to post-modify nouns and noun phrases, see the guide to noun post-modification, linked below.  In that guide, the genitive of-structure is considered as just one of a range of eight post-modifying prepositional phrases.

Another frequent occurrence of of + noun phrase is in partitive expressions and assemblage terms.  For example:
    a rasher of bacon
    a pane of glass
    a flock of sheep
    a shoal of fish

and in none of these cases is there any sense of a genitive case structure.


Pronunciation of 's and s' and of

If learners have already mastered the pronunciation of the third-person s and the plural s, then this will not be problematic because the same rules apply:

  1. Following /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/, the pronunciation is /ɪz/.  E.g.:
        the class' teacher (/ðə.ˈklɑː.sɪz.ˈtiː.tʃə/)
        the disease's symptoms (ðə.ˌdɪ.ˈziː.zɪz.ˈsɪmp.təmz/)
        the fish's habitat (/ðə.ˈfɪ.ʃɪz.ˈhæ.bɪ.tæt/)
        the luge's rules (/luːʒɪz.ruːlz/)
        the church's position (/ðə.ˈtʃɜː.tʃɪz.pə.ˈzɪʃ.n̩/)
        the judge's decision (/ðə.ˈdʒə.dʒɪz.dɪ.ˈsɪʒ.n̩/)
  2. When following any other voiceless consonant, /p/, /t/, /k/, /f/ or /θ/, the pronunciation is /s/.
        the ship's captain (/ðə.ˈʃɪps.ˈkæp.tɪn/)
        the government's decision (/ðə.ˈɡə.vərmənts.dɪ.ˈsɪʒ.n̩/)
        the pack's leader (/ðə.pæks.ˈliː.də/)
        the staff's attitude (/ðə.ˈstæfs.ˈæ.tɪ.tjuːd/)
        a month's work /ə.ˈmənθs.ˈwɜːk/)
  3. Otherwise, the pronunciation is /z/.  E.g.:
        David's car (/ˈdeɪ.vɪdz.kɑː/)
        Japan's population (/dʒə.ˈpænz.ˌpɒ.pjʊ.ˈleɪʃ.n̩/)
        the computer's memory (/ðə.kəm.ˈpjuː.tərz.ˈme.mə.ri/)
        John's house (/ˈdʒɑːnz.ˈhaʊs/)
        the paper's editor (/ðə.ˈpeɪ.pəz.ˈed.ɪt.ə/

The preposition of is almost always weakened to /əv/ and may even in very rapid speech, especially between two vowels, be simply /v/ so we get, e.g.:
    the opinion of the majority (/ði.ə.ˈpɪ.nɪən.əv.ðə.mə.ˈdʒɒ.rɪ.ti)
    the navy of Australia (/ðə.ˈneɪ.vi.vɒ.ˈstreɪ.liə/)

Related guides
pronouns for a guide to the pronoun system of English (which is case marked)
case for a guide to a wider area
classifiers and partitives for more on noun adjuncts
noun post-modification which considers the genitive of-structure in the context of other noun post-modifying structures

Chalker, S, 1987, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Huddleston, R and Pullum, GK et al, 2002, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman