World of English logo

The apostropheGenitive not always possessive

by Bob Cunningham

Over the years there have been postings to alternative usage English (AUE) websites that were based upon the misconception that the genitive case always indicates possession. This fallacy leads to people saying things like: "It can't be right to say 'the room's furnishings' because a room can't possess something."

The genitive case is in fact used for several things besides possession. Bergen and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, discuss seven genitive types:

  1. Classifying or descriptive genitive ("the room's furnishings")
  2. Possessive genitive ("Irene's coat")
  3. Subjective and objective genitive ("God's creation")
  4. Genitive of purpose ("He has written many children's books.")
  5. Measures and other adverbial genitives ("At one time the genitive form of certain words could be used as an adverb. Most of our adverbs that end in an "s" (or "z") sound, such as "nowadays," "since," "sometimes," "upwards," are survivals from this period.)
  6. Survivals of "an old genitive of source" ("hen's eggs")
  7. Partitive and appositive genitives (don't exist in English, but we express them with an "of" phrase, as in "some of us," "the state of Ohio," "the title of president").

(The Evanses give a detailed discussion of each type; I've only hinted at their discussions, mostly by giving a few examples.)

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says, in part:

Bishop Lowth in 1762 used the word possessive in place of the older term genitive; so then did other 18th-century grammarians, and many grammarians since have used it. This change in terminology has led to a few minor usage problems based on the erroneous supposition that the only function of the genitive is to show possession. [...] Fries found that the possessive genitive was the most common, but that it accounted for only 40-percent of all genitives.

They discuss a number of uses of the genitive and give examples of each. Under "descriptive genitive or classifying genitive", with the comment "Fries adds the genitive of measure to this", they list:

the room's furnishings
the airplane's speed
the building's foundation
one day's leave
a dollar's worth
a year's wages
the Eighty Years' War

A comment in MWDEU concerns the rephrasing of the genitive with apostrophe to a structure with a prepositional phrase, as in:

"the airplane's speed" => "the speed of the airplane".

They point out that, in what one grammarian (Evans) has called the genitive of purpose (listed above), the prepositional phrase must use the preposition "for" rather than "of", as in:

"men's shirts" => "shirts for men", and
"a girls' school" => "a school for girls".

Mark Israel's AUE FAQ doesn't cover the genitive-equals-possessive fallacy per se, but he does skirt the perimeter of it with:

The Latin plural of "curriculum vitae" is "curricula vitae".
[ . . . ]
This is a feature of the Latin genitive of content, which differs in this regard from the more common Latin genitive of possession.

A classic story in linguistics lore tells of the grammarian who tried to classify all of the ways the genitive can be used. He eventually threw up his hands and said that the genitive is the case that shows any relationship between two substantives.

To page top

Authors, how do you make sure your story turns out true to life?

'Research, research, research...'

says Doris Pannell

I am retired and live in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. I've written for about six years. During that period of time, I've had the good fortune to be published in close to twenty magazines and to win recognition in five writing contests. I'm an avid horsewoman who has owned and ridden horses since the age of ten, almost fifty years.

researchSome time ago, I perused a book on riding techniques. The author's final remark struck a chord with me. To paraphrase that sentence, a horse lover is a person who loves to look at horses, ride horses, or, if all else fails, watch horses on television or in movies. An author needs to know his or her subject with that same intensity. Without knowing it that well, it's impossible to make it come to life for the reader.

A good sense of place is an essential part of a well-written story. No matter what genre, there is no substitute for a first hand visit to the area to get the "lay of the land." Place is more than visual images, though. Authors need to describe the smells, sounds and attitudes of the time and place they are writing about if they hope to engross the reader.

If possible, plan a trip to the locale of your story. Talk with the people. Get a feel for their mannerisms. Don't be afraid to ask about regional legends and stories. These give your work an authentic, down home flavor.

Physical facts must be accurate, also. Don't put your ignorance on display by mixing topography. There are bound to be some readers who will know it's impossible for your character to go from point A to point B. That will make the read less enjoyable, and could cause them to put your story down in disgust. You don't want that to happen.

How, then, is it possible for an author to write about a time other than the present or a place they have never visited? They can't jump into a time machine to revisit a forgotten era, or climb aboard a space ship and travel to some distant planet. The answer, of course, is research.

Good, thorough research is the backbone of any story. You shouldn't have your Indian fighter astride a modern roping saddle. Those individuals rode the high-backed McClellan saddles that the government provided. Denim wasn't in use before the California gold rush of eighteen forty-nine. Don't clothe your early eighteen hundreds mountain man in blue jeans. Find out when matches were invented before you have your character use them to start a bonfire or light a cigar. Even small details must be accurate.

The Internet is a valuable research tool. I find it helpful to keep an Internet connection up as I write so I can switch back and forth between my story and my research at will. After saying that, I will caution you that while the Internet is an important part of research, don't rely too much on it. There is a wealth of information in cyberspace, but when a writer attempts to ferret it out, he often finds his patience taxed to the limit.

Research Books such as Candy Moulton's The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West are written for the specific purpose of educating authors on a particular time and place. They include such facts as dress, slang of the time, money, current events, plus a cornucopia of other valuable facts. A western author shouldn't ignore these books in their search for authenticity.

Museums, too, provide a lot of information. When the author can see long sharp spikes on a six-inch rowel, or how far a ten-gallon hat reaches into the sky, the objects become much easier to describe.

Of course, a writer cannot survive without a good dictionary and encyclopedia. I find the encyclopedias on CD to be a bit brief but don't reject them altogether as a source of knowledge. Since Spanish has become intertwined with cowboy lore, a good English-Spanish dictionary is helpful, also.

On your search for authenticity, don't neglect the abundance of knowledge available at your local library. Although less glamorous than the Internet, a library remains the best place to find that special little tidbit you're hunting for. Hidden within the stacks of books or folded between the pages of a periodical will be that certain fact you needed to make your western story come to life.

To most of us, research is a boring, time-consuming drudgery. Most writers yearn to skip that phase and get on to the creative part of their work. Research, however, is the framework upon which your story will hang. Take the time to do a thorough study of your subject and see how much easier it is to create a page-turning success.