of-possessive vs. –'s



What about the transition currently under way in the use of the possessive "s"/"Saxon possessive or Saxon genitive." Most of the native speakers I've asked won't accept, for example, "the train's windows," but a few Americans will.  I have serious problems in explaining "when you can and when you can't" to advanced translation students.

I'm basing it on the "time-honored" rules of animate objects and expressions of time, plus things primarily made up of collections of people (cities, governments, etc.), plus abstract productions of man's ingenuity ("The plan's effectiveness lay in its simplicity"). And I just tell them to accept anything else they happen to come across. Anyone have anything more precise?

Helen Tooke


The "time-honored rules" that Helen cites are pretty descriptive and accurate about when you can and when you can't use the apostrophe with -s. Celce-Murcia and Larson-Freeman add some data from a study of preferences of use by native English speakers in certain constructions. One of their conclusions is that –'s is more usual than the of-possessive

  • with a double possessive (Hank's brother's car)
  • with natural phenomena (the earth's rotation)
  • when informality is to be expressed (Shakespeare's sonnets)

In all other instances, the of-possessive is preferred by native English speakers.

Exceptions are idioms such as "get your money's worth," "at arm's length," and "my heart's desire," as well as newspaper headlines which might read: "University's chancellor indicted in financial scandal." Probably "university's chancellor" has already transitioned further into "university chancellor."

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