Wednesday, August 31, 2011
The -S Genitive: A World of Complexity
Wouldn’t it be nice if every aspect of a language had a simple explanation? Yeah, right. Dream on! Well, sometimes what seems simple really isn’t, and the English –s genitive certainly fits that description. For instance, does the ’s in This is Archie’s car have the same meaning as the ’s in This is Archie’s chair at the dinner table? And what about Carmen’s salary vs. Carmen’s resignation? Does the ’s in each one of those phrases mean the same thing? What’s so important, I believe, is that if we ESOL teachers don’t clearly understand the uses of and meanings behind the –s genitive, how can we impart that knowledge to our students? Food for thought, eh?
Let’s talk a little about each use of the –s genitive (’s and s’ ) so that we can always come up with good explanations and examples for our students. Here are 14 examples to show the varied uses of the –s genitive. Before you read further on after looking over the list, see if you can explain the meaning behind the use of that ’s in each example. I hope you have fun with these!
1. Archie’s car
2. Carmen’s salary
3. Archie’s chair at the dinner table
4. Carmen’s promotion
5. a teacher’s teacher
6. a chef’s hat
7. next week’s final exam
8. five dollars’ worth of snacks
9. two weeks’ worth of food
10. the moon’s gravitational pull
11. at arm’s length
12. the jewelry department at Macy’s
13. George and Edna’s dogs
14. the woman who won the lottery’s winning ticket
Have you ended up scratching your head over some of these? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you have. And if you think some of the uses in my list are confounding, just imagine how tough these distinctions are on our students!
So here are the explanations for the use of each ’s in the examples above:
1. We’re all familiar with this first use, to show possession or usually to show that something belongs to a person or animal. Nothing unusual, right?
2. This use of the ’s really means that we’re paraphrasing a sentence with have: Carmen has a salary.
3. Instead of showing possession, the –s genitive here shows something preferred. It’s not that Archie owns that chair; it’s that Archie prefers to sit on that chair at the dinner table.
4. We use the ’s in this case to show that the head noun (in this case, Carmen again) has received the action. This –s genitive is used to show that a head noun either does or receives the action mentioned. In a sentence like Andy’s recuperation will take a long time, Andy is doing the action of recuperating.
5. What a nice compliment if this is said about you! This ’s is used to show esteem.
6. Even though there are situations when this could simply mean possession (the chef’s hat), in this case with the indefinite article, the –s genitive shows appropriateness, and it can be paraphrased with for: a hat for a chef. Another example is a girls’ school, which means a school for girls.
7. We normally use the ’s with words that are time periods. Other examples can be yersterday’s news or tomorrow’s work schedule.
8. This demonstrates an amount of money that’s equal to something. In this case, it’s the number of snacks that total up to $10.
9. This example is similar to no. 8. It shows an amount of time that’s equal to something.
10. The –s genitive is normally used with people and animals, that is, with animate things. Even though the moon is not something animate, we can use the ’s at times with inanimate things that are seen as performing actions or that have been anthropomorphized. Another example is The ship’s ballast is too light.
11. We’ve got a group of words tied together that we call pat or formulaic phrases. That term simply means that there’s no really “logical” explanation for why these phrases exist. Another example is They live a stone’s throw from here.
12. When the speaker and listener, or the writer and reader, both understand what’s being referred to, we normally don’t mention the noun following the noun with the –s genitive because we don’t have the need to do so. In this case, both parties understand that Macy’s is a department store. Another example can be I’m going over to my aunt’s for dinner tomorrow night. Of course I mean “my aunt’s house” in this case, and I know you’ll understand that.
13. The ’s is stuck on the second name here to show that the two people mentioned share possession of the head noun. In other words, the dogs belong to both George and Edna. But take a look at this phrase: George’s and Edna’s dogs. In this example, some of the dogs belong only to George and the others belong only to Edna.
14. Finally we see an example of an interesting and sometimes amusing phenomenon called the group genitive. It’s not heard or used very commonly, with most speakers opting to say something like the winning ticket of the woman who won the lottery, but it does exist. In fact, there was a very famous American comedienne by the name of Gracie Allen who was famous for creating outrageously long – but understandable – group genitives. Come to think of it, that’s what made them so funny, that they were understandable!
That does it. I’ve covered just about all the various uses of the –s genitive now, and I hope you’ve found some of them enlightening. As I mentioned, if you clearly understand the varied uses of and meanings behind this form, it’ll be that much easier to teach them to your students and give them lots of neat examples. Perhaps in a another piece for “Teacher Talk,” I’ll deal with the use of the other member of the genitive team, the preposition of, and how it differs from ’s. So stay tuned!