Use of The Possessive Case, English Grammar, Advanced English Grammar

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Use of The Possessive Case

Use of The Possessive Case :

Possession may be denoted by a phrase with OF as well as by the possessive case. The distinction between the two forms cannot be brought under rigid rules. But the following suggestions will be of use.

In older English and in poetry the possessive case of nouns is freely used, but in modern prose it is rare unless the possessor is a living being. A phrase with OF is used instead.

1. The mayor of Detroit (NOT Detroit’s mayor)
2. The top of the post (NOT the post’s top)
3. The prevalence of the epidemic (NOT the epidemic’s prevalence)

Contrast the poetic use….

Belgium’s capital had gathered then

Her beauty and her chivalry…..Byron.

Other prepositions are sometimes used such as….

the explosion in New York (NOT “New York’s explosion")

the station at Plymouth

When the possessor is a living being, good usage varies.

1. If there is actual ownership or possession of some material thing, the possessive case is generally used in the singular such as….“John’s hat" (not “the hat of John").

The possessive plural, however, is often replaced by a phrase with OF to avoid ambiguity or harshness such as….“the jewels of the ladies" (rather than “the ladies’ jewels"), “the wings of the geese" (rather than “the geese’s wings").

2. With nouns denoting a quality, an act or the like, either the possessive or the OF-phrase is proper such as…..

1. John’s generosity or the generosity of John
2. John’s condition or the condition of John
3. the guide’s efforts or the efforts of the guide
4. Cesar’s death or the death of Cesar

When there is any choice, it usually depends on euphony (that is, agreeable sound) and is therefore a question of style. Sometimes, however, there is a distinction in sense.

JOHN’S FEAR indicates that JOHN IS AFRAID.

But THE FEAR OF JOHN means the fear which John inspires in others.

The following phrases are established idioms with the possessive. In some of them, however, the possessive may be replaced by of and its object.


1. The earth’s surface
2. the sun’s rays
3. the moon’s reflection
4. the pit’s mouth
5. a rope’s end
6. his journey’s end
7. at his wit’s end
8. the ship’s keel
9. the water’s edge
10. the cannon’s mouth
11. out of harm’s way
12. at swords’ points
13. for pity’s sake
14. for conscience’ sake


1. a moment’s pause
2. a year’s time
3. a hand’s breadth
4. a boat’s length
5. a month’s salary
6. a week’s notice
7. a night’s rest
8. a day’s work
9. a stone’s throw
10. a feather’s weight
11. an hour’s delay
12. a dollar’s worth
13. not a foot’s difference

In the second group of phrases (“a moment’s pause," etc.), the possessive denotes not ownership, but measure or extent.

The possessive case of certain pronouns (my, our, your, his, her, its, their) is more freely used than that of nouns in expressions that do not denote actual ownership.

1. I know him to my sorrow. [Compare : to his loss, to our detriment, to his advantage.]

2. The brass has lost its polish.

3. This question must be decided on its merits.

4. His arguments did not fail of their effect.

When a thing belongs to two or more joint owners, the sign of the possessive is added to the last name only.

Brown, Jones and Richardson’s factories. [Brown, Jones and Richardson are partners.]

It is George and William’s turn to take the boat. [George and William are to go in the boat together.]

On the other hand, in order to avoid ambiguity we should say, “Brown’s, Jones’s and Richardson’s factories," if each individual had a factory of his own and “George’s and William’s answers were correct," if each boy answered independently of the other.

In compound nouns the last part takes the possessive sign. So also when a phrase is used as a noun.

1. My father-in-law’s home is in Easton.
2. We had a quarter of an hour’s talk.
3. My brother-in-law’s opinion
4. the commander-in-chief’s orders
5. the lady-in-waiting’s duties
6. the coal dealer’s prices
7. Edward VII’s reign
8. the King of England’s portrait
9. half a year’s delay
10. in three or four months’ time
11. a cable and a half’s length
12. the pleasure of Major Pendennis and Mr. Arthur Pendennis’s company (Thackeray)

Note : Noun-phrases often contain two substantives, the second of which is in apposition with the first. In such phrases, OF is generally preferable to the possessive. Thus, we may say either TOM THE BLACKSMITH’S DAUGHTER or THE DAUGHTER OF TOM THE BLACKSMITH.

But THE SON OF MR. HILL THE CARPENTER is both neater and clearer than MR. HILL THE CARPENTER’S SON. The use of ’s is also avoided with a very long phrase like….the owner of the house on the other side of the street.

An objective may stand in apposition with a possessive, the latter being equivalent to OF with an object. Thus…..“I am not yet of Percy’s mind [= of the mind of Percy], the Hotspur of the North" (Shakespeare).

The noun denoting the object possessed is often omitted when it may be readily understood, especially in the predicate.

1. Conant’s [shop] is open until noon.
2. I buy my hats at Bryant’s [shop].
3. We will dine at Pennock’s [restaurant].
4. That camera is mine.

This construction is common in such expressions as….

1. He was a relative of John’s.
2. That careless tongue of John’s will get him into trouble.

In the first example, “a relative of John’s" means “a relative of (= from among) John’s relatives." The second example shows an extension of this construction by analogy.

Use of The Possessive Case :

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