Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The -S Genitive: A World of Complexity

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

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!


Comment from Nick Jaworski
August 31, 2011 at 6:42 pm

A world of complexity about sums that up I think. It’s far too complicated to really be worth demonstrating in class. Possession is a fairly simple concept that translates between most languages I know quite easily. I think the differences in 13 are the only ones worth pointing out. I suppose differentiating between them for students if they ask could be useful, but I think more than likely it’d be making the subject overly complex.

Comment from Haleemss
August 31, 2011 at 8:06 pm


I wonder what is meant by

the moon’s gravitational pull

Comment from Richard Firsten
September 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Hi, Nick. I agree with you that this topic would be far too complicated to demonstrate in class, and I’d never expect it all to be used in one or two lessons. That wasn’t my point, and I’d never recommend doing that. I’m glad you pointed out that “differentiating between them (i.e., the meanings) for students if they ask could be useful.” Indeed, that’s what I’d like teachers to be able to do.

By the way, Nick, as far as it being fairly simple to translate the concept of the -s genitive between languages, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. For example, if I say, “Please don’t sit there. That’s Dad’s armchair,” a non-native speaker could get very confused. He most likely assumes that the speaker’s father owns everything in the house, so saying that the armchair belongs to Dad doesn’t really explain why he shouldn’t sit in it. Understanding that the meaning is that Dad prefers that chair to sit in and that he wants it for himself could be very helpful, don’t you think?

One more point: I recall many grammar books siting the fact that we use ‘s for people and animals in a chapter usually called something like “The Possessive.” Well, what about “the earth’s orbit”? Are we really talking about possession? Moreover, can you also say “the orbit of the earth”? And if you can, what’s the difference? Teachers should be able to give a simple, clear explanation to their students if questioned about this.

The main thing is that, as I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, it’s good to have the information at your disposal just in case you come across a student who questions why the -s genitive is used in a specific phrase. I’m happy you’ve agreed that it could be useful. Thanks for your comments, Nick.

Comment from Haleemss
September 2, 2011 at 3:15 am

Well, what about “the earth’s orbit”? Are we really talking about possession? Moreover, can you also say “the orbit of the earth”? And if you can, what’s the difference? Teachers should be able to give a simple, clear explanation to their students if questioned about this.

Can I have you explaining the difference?

Comment from Richard Firsten
September 2, 2011 at 9:14 am

Please check out no. 10 again. “The orbit of the earth” is the more typical way of creating a genitive noun phrase, but no. 10 explains why the -s genitive can also be used.

Comment from naleeni
September 3, 2011 at 4:38 am

Oprah & Gayle’s adventure!

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Comment from Fabiana
September 27, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I loved your explanations, so detailed and clear.
It was a wonderful reminder of something that needs to be paid attention to and explained many times and differently according to students and situations.

Comment from Richard Firsten
September 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Thank you very, very much, Fabiana. I’m glad my explanations were detailed enough and clear. I’ll be writing about the “of”-genitive quite soon. I hope you’ll like that, too.

Comment from Nick Jaworski
October 8, 2011 at 7:14 am

Agreed Richard. It’s always useful to be aware of the reasons or rules behind language use.

In other languages I’m merely referring to standard possession such as Nick’s pen. In the other cases you mention, one shouldn’t assume it translates as neatly. For example, in Mandarin you cannot say “Nick’s bank” meaning the bank that Nick goes to. You have to say “the bank Nick uses” instead.

Comment from Richard Firsten
October 8, 2011 at 9:09 am

Exactly, Nick. I’m very glad we see eye to eye on this topic when all is said and done. In fact, I remember that in Cantonese (I wonder if Mandarin works the same way), if I want to say “the man’s house,” I have to say “man the house.” Genitive forms can get very tricky from language to language! Thanks for your extra comments, Nick.

Comment from Akos Farkas
November 17, 2012 at 7:16 am

I find it difficult to explain the following to my students–or indeed to myself. Can you help me, please?

So here goes:

1.a “Gilbert and Sullivan’s tunes” BUT
1.b “Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s families”.

Is that so? Wherefore the difference?

If the intended meaning is the same (i.e. “Joe is my friend, and he has a car”), which of the following two is correct? Why?

2.a “my friend Joe’s car”
2.b “my friend’s, Joe’s, car”

Thank you for your attention.

Best, Akos

Comment from Richard Firsten
November 17, 2012 at 8:40 am

Hi, Akos.

Please look back at Example 13 above and its explanation. I think that clearly explains what you’d like to know.

As to your other inquiry, only 2a is correct. In your example, the basic noun phrase is “my friend,” so it’s “my friend’s car.” Now, it’s important to understand the difference between “my friend, Joe,..” and “my friend Joe…” With the commas before and after “Joe,” the person is actually communicating that he/she only has one friend whose name is Joe. Without the commas, he/she is communicating that Joe is just one of a number of friends that person has.

Here’s another example: [1] My brother Bill works there. (I have more than one brother, but this one works there.) [2] My brother, Bill, works there. (I have just one brother whose name is Bill, and he works there.)

So when you say “my friend Joe’s car,” you’re talking about the car owned by one of your friends whose name is Joe.

The other phrase you have, 2b, doesn’t make any sense. According to English syntax, when you create a possessive with the -s genitive, you need to mention the thing possessed right after that (my friend’s car) or you may not need to mention what is owned if it’s understood (Speaker A: Whose car is that? Speaker B: It’s my friend’s.)

With those commas in 2b, neither case is taking place. In addition, for the meaning in this phrase, you don’t need two -s genitives. Here’s a phrase in which you do need two -s genitives: my parents’ neighbors’ house, which means the house that belongs to my parents’ neighbors.

I hope this information has been clear enough, Akos. Thanks for your interest in the subject and for reading “Teacher Talk”!

Comment from kraut
February 11, 2013 at 12:05 pm

What about words that end in an apostrophe like “Maître d'”?
Do we wait “at the maître d’s desk” or “at the maître d”s desk”?


Comment from Richard Firsten
February 11, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Wie geht’s, Kraut? (What a choice of screen names!)

Thanks for the very clever question. After scratching my head for a minute or so, I came to the conclusion that it would be overkill to use two apostrophes in this case if just for esthetic reasons alone.

Pingback from Teacher Talk » The Of-Genitive and Other Genitives: More Complexity
November 1, 2013 at 11:52 am

[…] my last piece for Teacher Talk (“The -S Genitive: A World of Complexity”), I outlined most of the complexities in meaning behind the use of that English grammatical form. I […]

Comment from rena
June 6, 2014 at 4:06 am

You haven’t explained about the sentence structure “noun + of + the + noun like the following.

Whisper of the heart.
Grave of the fireflies.

Can you explain?

Comment from Richard Firsten
June 6, 2014 at 9:34 am

Please see my answers where you posed these questions at the end of my article about the ‘of’ genitive.

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