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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.

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right-handedThe long-held perception that right is 'right'

David V. Appleyard citing veteran 'vocabularian' Norman Lewis

Back in our schooldays, how many of us didn't learn to tell left from right by saying our right hand was right to write with, and the other was what was left?

The notion that right is right seems to have been deeply rooted in western culture for a very long time. But not only there—throughout Africa and South Asia the right hand is used to handle food, while the left hand reserved for "other" activities.

Already at the time of the Roman empire, the Latin word for right or right hand, dexter, also meant handy or skillful. This positive connotation eventually found its way into English in the form of the noun dexterity and the adjective dexterous.

According to Norman Lewis in his now classic vocabulary builder Word Power Made Easy:

"The right hand is traditionally the more skillful one; it is only within recent decades that we have come to accept that 'lefties' or 'southpaws' are just as normal as anyone else—and the term left-handed is still used as a synonym of awkward.
"The Latin word for the left hand is sinister. This same word, in English, means threatening, evil, or dangerous, a further commentary on our early suspiciousness of left-handed persons..."
"The French word for the left hand is gauche, and, as you would suspect, when we took this word over into English we invested it with an uncomplimentary meaning. Call someone gauche and you imply clumsiness, generally social rather than physical. (We're right back to our age-old misconception that left-handed people are less skillful than right-handed ones.)
"A gauche remark is tactless; a gauche offer of sympathy is so bumbling as to be embarrassing; gaucherie is an awkward, clumsy, tactless, embarrassing way of saying things or of handling situations. The gauche person is totally without finesse.
"And the French word for the right hand is droit, which we have used in building our English word adroit. Needless to say, adroit, like dexterous, means skillful, but especially in the exercise of the mental facilities. Like gauche, adroit, or its noun adroitness, usually is used figuratively. The adroit person is quick-witted, can get out of difficult spots cleverly, can handle situations ingeniously. Adroitness is, then, quite the opposite of gaucherie."

Notice here how adroitly Mr. Lewis steers us clear of leftist politics, ha ha!

I'm sure you'll find his bestselling 500-page digest a timeless treasure-trove of etymological information, and outstanding value at a list price of just $7.99.