Friday, October 7, 2011

The Of-Genitive and Other Genitives: More Complexity

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

In 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 did so to help ELT professionals become more aware of why that form of the genitive is used in certain circumstances and how to explain any of those uses should the need arise if students raise questions. Now I’d like to focus on the of-genitive and on some other forms of the genitive as well.

Let’s begin by talking a little about each use of the of-genitive so we’ll have good explanations and examples for our students. Here are eight examples to show the varied uses for the of-genitive. Before you read further on after looking over the list, see if you can explain the meaning behind the use for of in each example. I hope you don’t find any head scratchers!

  1. the glow of moonlight
  2. the height of her fame
  3. the children of the man I hired to paint my house
  4. a pair of pants
  5. the leaves of a tree
  6. a bit of kindness
  7. a quart of milk
  8. the bulls of Pamplona

I certainly understand that it’s not easy to figure out the uses for the of-genitive just by looking at simple examples – and that’s my point. Something that may seem easy to get on the surface isn’t necessarily so easy to figure out.

Here are the explanations for the use of each of-genitive in the examples above:

1.   We can use the of-genitive to focus on an aspect of most concrete, non-living things. In this case, moonlight is the concrete, non-living thing and the glow is the aspect we’re thinking about. Other examples can be the shapes of clouds / the feel of velvet.

2.   This is another example of no. 1, except that in this case we’re dealing with an aspect (the height) of an abstract thing (her fame), not something concrete. Other examples can be the heart of the matter / the crux of the problem.

3.   To make things more understandable, we often use the of-genitive with head nouns that are followed by lengthy adjective clauses. In this case, the man is the head noun and I hired to paint my house is the adjective clause. It’s fun to note that if I want to, I can create a group genitive to generate the same idea – although it’s harder to take it all in: the man I hired to paint my house’s children. Whew! Now that’s a mouthful!

4, 5, 6, & 7 are all uses of what we call the partitive genitive:

4. pairs or sets of things (a pair of scissors / a set of ratchets)

5. parts of things (the legs of a table / the windows of a house)

6. amounts of abstract things (a moment of joy / a tinge of conscience)

7. measurements of things (4 oz. of butter / a tsp. of salt)

8.   This example shows the use of what we refer to as an appositive genitive. It’s a genitive phrase that we use to describe the preceding noun. In this case, the noun is the bulls, but we need to know which bulls are being referred to. The appositive genitive of Pamplona takes care of that for us. Other examples can be the Duke of York / the Five Books of Moses.

How are you doing so far? Are you still with me? Well, there are two more uses for the of-genitive to mention. The first is called the double genitive, which uses a combination of the of-genitive and the ’s. An example of it is in the sentence Ken is a friend of Paul’s. This construction can really throw our students for a loop.

What does it actually mean? Well, what if I just say Ken is Paul’s friend? Isn’t that good enough? The answer is no, it isn’t, because it doesn’t mean the same thing. If I say Ken is Paul’s friend, I’m implying that Paul only has one friend, Ken. When I use the double genitive, I make it clear that Ken is just one of the friends that Paul has. A little tricky, eh?

We can also see the double genitive at work in phrases like She’s a neighbor of mine. In this case, I’m using the of-genitive along with the possessive pronoun mine instead of a noun with the ’s, but I’m accomplishing the same thing. I’m communicating that she is just one of many neighbors I have, not my only neighbor. Sure, I can say She’s my neighbor, but then the meaning could be that she’s my only neighbor. Using the double genitive takes away any ambiguity.

And speaking of using the double genitive, there’s one use of this form that’s rarely if ever taught to our students. Here are two examples to show you this use at work:

  • That son of hers is a handful.
  • This parrot of yours can talk up a storm!

So what’s going on in those examples? Notice that they also include the demonstratives that and this? If demonstratives are used together with the double genitive, we communicate an extra feeling or emotion, which can be disapproval (That son of hers is a handful) or approval (This parrot of yours can talk up a storm!). Neat stuff, isn’t it?

Last, but not least, we have another special use for the of-genitive that rarely gets taught. Check out these two phrases: the catch of the day / the president of Mexico. Yeah? So? Well, can’t we just as easily say the day’s catch and Mexico’s president? Sure we can. So why opt for using the of-genitive instead of that good old ’s? Think about this for a moment before reading on . . .

Okay, the answer is that by opting to use the of-genitive in phrases like these we create a more formal sound to them or we give the phrases an air of more importance. If I’m speaking to a fisherman who’s unloading all the fish he caught that day, I’m sure that I’ll say something like So what are you going to do with the day’s catch? But if I’m a server in a seafood restaurant and I want to lend an air of importance to what choices my customers have, I’m going to say something like The catch of the day is mahi mahi. If you think about it, it would be really weird if I said to that fisherman, So what are you going to do with the catch of the day? Wouldn’t it? You bet it would!

There you go. I hope this information will prove helpful at some point in your teaching. You might even decide to incorporate some of these uses for the of-genitive in your lesson plans. Happy teaching, everybody!


Comment from lantseva larissa
October 8, 2011 at 3:11 am

very helpful, thank you very much.

Comment from Richard Firsten
October 8, 2011 at 9:11 am

You’re very welcome! :)

Comment from DISHON
August 29, 2012 at 1:15 am

The explanation is excellent

Comment from Richard Firsten
August 29, 2012 at 9:08 am

I’m really glad you found it so, Dishon. Thanks!

Comment from rena
June 6, 2014 at 3:30 am

How about the sentence structure “noun + of + the +noun” like the following?

Whisper of the heart.
Grave of the fireflies.

The sentences above do not indicate possession and the word “the” doesn’t mean anthying here.

Can you explain?

Comment from Richard Firsten
June 6, 2014 at 9:31 am

I’d be glad to, Rena.

‘Whisper of the heart’ is an example of my explanation no. 2. And, by the way, the use or lack of use of an article in the phrase is irrelevant.

As for ‘grave of the fireflies,’ this shows possession; the grave belongs to the fireflies. I assume this is a title of something, being so strange. In any event, it demonstrates simple possession.

Comment from rena
June 6, 2014 at 4:42 pm

Oh, I see. What if there’s not an article in a sentence?

For instance:
Owner of Power.

And there is also a complex structure like the following.

Master of The Day of Judgement.
A real palace of a house.
A Wold of Complexity.

What number do you explain these?
What might make me confused is the articles: a + noun + of + a + noun; a noun + of + noun. Can you explain these?

Also, can I say “the master of the day of Judgment” or “the master of the day of the Judgement”? If I can’t, why?

Comment from Richard Firsten
June 6, 2014 at 8:14 pm

Hi, Rena. Please let me suggest that you join Betty Azar’s “Grammar Exchange,” a forum that will answer all your questions. Just go to and you’ll enjoy the experience. :)

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