Friday, October 3, 2008

I Think We’re Possessed!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

(a teacher, Mrs. Odets, on a field trip with her ELL students)
Mrs. Odets:

Isn’t that an amazing sight? The Statue of Liberty!

Excuse me, Mrs. Odets. You say “Statue of Liberty.” The statue possesses liberty?
Mrs. Odets:
Uh, no, Paolo. That doesn’t make sense, does it. Anyway … (Now what was I going to say? Oh, yes! Right!) … It’s amazing how so many people know of this great work of art.

Mrs. Odets, why do you say of again? I don’t hear possession. I’m confused.
Mrs. Odets:

Uh … um … Don’t be confused, Hiro. I wasn’t talking about any possession. Why do you think I was talking about possession?

Because you said “many people know of the work of art,” right? You used of two times! You said know of. You said work of. I heard you!
Mrs. Odets:

Can we talk about this later, back in class? Right now let’s just concentrate on this field trip, all right? Now, as I was saying … You can go almost anywhere and people know the Statue of Liberty. You see the torch she’s holding? People used to be able to walk up a flight of stairs inside the statue’s torch, but not anymore.

Excuse me, Mrs. Odets.
Mrs. Odets:

Yes, Magda. What is it?

I am confused, too. You said “flight of stairs.” Why of? And you taught we cannot use apostrophe s with things that don’t live, like a statue. But you just said “the statue’s torch.” Is that good English? Oh, and what is a torch?

(later at a restaurant)

Mrs. Odets:
Doesn’t everything on this menu look wonderful? I can’t decide what to order.

I love fish. They say the catch of the day is grouper. Is that a good fish?

Why “the catch of the day,” Mrs. Odets? You tell us to use apostrophe s for time words like day, tomorrow, this week. I don’t understand. Why don’t they say the day’s catch or today’s catch?
Mrs. Odets:

Uh … well … er …

Oh! Look at what it says in that newspaper! “The King of Spain is coming to visit the President.” That’s my king! Uh, Mrs. Odets? Can’t I say Spain’s king?
Mrs. Odets:

Yes, Magda, you can. And now you want to know why we can say that two ways, right?

Yes, please.
Mrs. Odets:

Let’s order lunch first. I’ll tell you all about that tomorrow in class. Okay?


Poor Mrs. Odets! She walked right into that landmine field that we call “the possessives.” It’s astounding how complicated a supposedly simple topic can end up being. If only we could teach our students the rules for apostrophe s and of and then grab our hats and coats and make a dash for the exit. But it doesn’t work like that, does it. Nope, not at all.

I think part of the difficulty starts when we in ELT (English Language Teaching) call these two forms “possessives.” It creates an illusion that their sole purpose is to show what belongs to whom or who belongs to what:

That’s Jake’s bike.
My mother’s pet iguana is depressed.
A dog’s hearing is very powerful.

She studies the wings of moths.
Have you ever looked at the shape of an amoeba?
The tentacles of a jellyfish can be poisonous.

Now, if you were going to fashion a couple of rules about how to use apostrophe s and of based on the sentences above, what would they be? Well, this is what I was taught umpteen years ago: “Use apostrophe s for higher order living things and of for lower order living things.” That’s kind of neat and easy. So people and dogs and other mammals like cats and sheep and moose are higher order living things, and insects, one-celled creatures, and mollusks are lower order living things. Hmm … One question: Where do we draw the line between higher order and lower order living things? Is there a list we can refer to? Of course not. So???

And what about inanimate things? Well, the rule went on to say we should use of for inanimate things: the turrets of the castle / the cockpit of a plane / the engine problems of my car. That seems doable. But I could swear I’ve heard people say things like the castle’s turrets / a plane’s cockpit / my car’s engine problems. Uh … Don’t those phrases sound okay to you? They sound okay to me ― I guess. (Oops. I think we just found another landmine.)

So should we just throw out the rules and say whatever we feel comfortable with? But how do you t
each that to your students? “All right, my intrepid ELL’s. Use apostrophe s or use of to show possession for whatever you’re talking about. Just use whichever one makes you feel comfy. See how easy learning English can be?”

But there’s another area that we should check out. In that conversation poor Mrs. Odets had with her students, something else was going on with that little rascally preposition of: the Statue of Liberty / that work of art / a flight of stairs. Now you’re not going to tell me that we’re still talking about possession, are you? Uh-uh, I won’t buy that ― and I know the students won’t either. No, there’s something else being thrown into the mix now. But what?

Oh! And before I forget, did you notice some other uses for of? What about when Paolo noticed the menu had “the catch of the day” on it instead of the day’s catch? And what about when Magda realized she could just as easily say Spain’s king as “the king of Spain”? And if that’s not enough, what about when Mrs. Odets said, “It’s amazing how many people know of this great statue”? (Kaboom! Watch out for those landmines!) Well, what’s going on now? (Are you feeling a little overwhelmed?) Obviously, teaching apostrophe s and of can be very daunting, and I’d appreciate some help here.

How about sending in your explanations for apostrophe s and of as you’ve seen them used in Mrs. Odets’ (Odets’s?) conversations with her very astute group of students.

Hmm … Let’s not even get into that issue over how to write the possessive for the teacher’s last name! Or should we? I’ll leave that up to you!

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