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Using the possessive in English

Using of or 's - a guide to expressing the possessive in English. It is not always clear to students when to use a possessive structure with "of", and when a structure with apostrophe s ('s) is possible or desirable. But native English speakers rarely make mistakes; the rules are intuitive.

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Possessive structures in English - use of of and 's

"Should I use "of" or an "s" structure?"  

    Sadly there's no absolute rule to tell you whether you need to use, or can use, a "possessive" form with "of", on one with "'s". The simple rule that you can "only use 's with people" is a very broad generalisation, with lots of excep­tions. Besides, there are a lot of cases where, even with people, you cannot use 's. So here are the main forms of "possession", and some exam­ples to re­member:

The first thing to determine is: is the "possessor" animate or inanimate?

1) Animates: HUMAN POSSESSORS,  OR ASSIMILATED:

1.1. In cases of true possession: 's is normal.
A1) The lady's car wouldn't start.
A2) The dog's leg was broken.
With qualities, attributes or actions: 's is common.
A3) Madonna's reputation is international.
A4)  The dog's name was Jackson.
A5) The Queen's arrival was delayed.
These can also be easily expressed using of.
A31) The reputation of Madonna is international.
A41) The name of the dog was Jackson.
There is a difference in emphasis between the two alternatives: examples A3-A5 emphasize the possessor, A31 and A41 emphasize the quality or attribute. In A5, the "possessor" is the subject of the verbal noun following it.

Situations in which there is no choice:
Sometimes however, even though both forms are theoretically possible, the structure of a sentence will determine the choice of expression, as a word may have to stand next to other words qualifying it: for example
A32) The reputation of Madonna, the American singer, is international
We can NOT say:
A32X) ** Madonna's reputation, the American singer, is international. **
Examples A1 and A2 will  be rephrased using "of" if this is structurally essential:
A 11) The car of the lady I had lunch with  wouldn't start
Clearly, the other theoretical option gives the wrong meaning!
          A 11x) **The lady's car I had lunch with wouldn't start. **

1.2. Possessive adjectives:

There is no choice when possession is indicated by a possessive adjective, such as his, my, your, etc.
A61   Your loss is my gain
A62    I  took my brother to see our grandfather.
A62x  I took the brother of me to see the grandfather of us.

1.3. Relating a part to a whole (animates)

 Use of "of" is  obligatory when expressing the relation of a proportion to a whole
A71    the rest of the people,
A72    the majority of voters
A73     a quarter of the committee

We can NOT say:
A71x:  the people's rest,  
A72x:  the voters' majority
A73x:  the committee's quarter

Of and 's are both possible (depending on sentence structure) when expressing the relation of a part to a unitary (single) whole.
A8  The man's arm was broken, or
A81 The arm of the man was broken

2. Inanimate possessors 

For qualities, attributes, actions, or parts: Ofis the usual structure, but 's may be possible; The unusual "'s" form can be used with some familiar nouns for stress, or for reasons of sentence structure.
B1 The cost of the operation was enormous.
B2 The condition of the goods we received was not very satisfactory
B3 The launch of the new book was very successful.
B31 The new book's launch was very successful.
B4 Where's the lid of the saucepan?
B5 The front end of the car was smashed up.
B6 The departure of the train was delayed for an hour.
B61 The train's departure was delayed for an hour.

In examples B3 and B6, the sentence could be rephrased using subject and verb instead of the possessive structures.
B32 The new book was launched very successfully (subj. + passive verb)
B62  the train departed an hour later than planned (subj. + active verb)

2.1. Relating a part to a whole (inanimates) or a group to its constituents

 The "of" form is normally obligatory when expressing the relation of a part to a whole (or a whole to its parts)  when the part has no meaning unless it refers to a whole.
B7    the top of the stairs .  
     (i.e. the word top is meaningless without reference to stairs)
B8    the back of the building
B9    The middle of the report

The same is usually true when expressing the relation of a unit to a group (or a group to its units)  when the group is defined by the units of which it is composed.
B10   A collection of paintings
B11  A group of trees

We can NOT say:
B71x:     the stairs' top .
B81x:  
  the building's back.
B101x    A paintings' collection
However there  sometimes is a choice when the part is expressed as adjective+noun, or when the part is more important in the phrase than the whole (B 13, B131),
B12    The top floor of the building
B121  The building's top floor
B 13    The roof of the building was on fire
B 131   The building's roof was on fire

3. Complemental noun groups

"of" is essential, except in a few specific cases.
C1) The theory of relativity.   NOT   :  the relativity's theory
C2) The Department of Linguistics.   NOT  :  the Linguistics's department
Complemental noun groups  can often be rephrased as compounds, without 's:
C11) the relativity theory
C21) the Linguistics Department




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