Topic 16 – The expression of possession

Topic 16 – The expression of possession


According to quirk, case is the “gramatical category that can express a number of different relationships between nominal elements”. In English there are two cases: a common case, and a genitive case.


Singular nouns add ´s to form the genitive.

In words ending in the letter s, or other spelling pronounced /z/ or /s/, the s is omitted.

This is the case of some greek names (Hercules, Xerxes).

In other names ending in /z/, like Burns, both options are correct (Burns´ / Burns´s, Dickens´ / Dickens´s).

In the phrase for ….. sake, the genitive is omitted when the noun ends in /s, z/ (for goodness´ sake, for conscience´ sake).

Plural nouns ending in –s, the s is omitted: the boys´ house.


Z after voiced non-sibillants boy´s /boiz/

S after voiced non-sibillants cat´s /kats/

Iz after sibilants horse´s /ho:ziz/



Subjective. The genitive may denote the agent of the headword, when it denotes an action. The master´s work.

Objective. The genitive denotes the receiver of the action. The president´s drivers. (it is preferred “of”: the drivers of the president).

Origin genitive: my mother´s country

Descriptive genitive: a summer´s day. A doctor´s degree.


ATTRIBUTIVE FUNCTION: It is the most common function, it precedes a headword, and it is subordinated to it. John´s house.

It can be specifying (it refers to a particular person or thing). My mother´s house.

It is pronounced with two strong stresses The ´teacher´s ´book.

The attributive words preceding the genitive refer to the genitive. My dear friend´s house.

Or it can be classifying. It refers to a class or kind. A doctor´s degree.

It is pronounced with one strong stress: a ´doctor´s degree.

The attributive words preceeding the genitive refer to the group as a whole: A foreign doctor´s degree. (it is not the doctor who is foreign).

This kind of genitive tends to form set phrases, as statesman, or bridesmaid.

INDEPENDENT FUNCTION. The headword is not expressed.

Elliptic: the headword is not expressed because it is in the context. Mary´s is a beautiful house.

Local genitive: It is implied that the headword is a place, usually a house, an institution, a business, or a shop. My uncle´s (house), Saint Andrews´ (church), butcher´s (shop), the butcher´s (shop).


Sometimes, both the construction with “of”, and the genitive are used at the same time: two friend´s of tom´s. There can be differences between this construction and a normal genitive:

When we talk about a portrait of my father, we think in a portrait representing him, whereas if we talk about a portrait of my father´s, it is implied that my father owns the portrait, or it was made by him.


We can only use the genitive in the following cases:

When the noun is a name of relation without a preceding attributive word:

Mother´s birthday *the birthday of mother

Classifying genitives have not, as a general rule, an of construction counterpart:

A giant´s task does not mean the same as a task of a giant. The kid made a professional player match. (not the game of a professional player).

If the noun denotes time, the of construction is not usually used:

A day´s work. A month´s holiday.

Post-genitive and local genitive have no of construction counterpart.

There are some set phrases using the genitive: at arm´s length, at bird´s eye.

On the other hand, the of construction is preferred in the following cases:

If the noun denotes a thing: the colours of the rainbow.

If we want to avoid ambiguity between singular and plural:

The teachers´ task / the task of the teachers.

Adjectives used substantivally are not normally used in the genitive:

The English´ habits / the habits of the English.


There are two series:

Attributive: my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their.

The predicative: mine, yours, his, hers, ours, yours, theirs.

Unlike many other languages (including Galician and Spanish), English uses possessives to refer to parts of the body and personal belongings:

She has broken her arm.

He put his hand into his pocket.

The definite article is however used in prepositional phrases concerned with the object:

She took me by the hand, she palmed him on the shoulder.


Nouns can modify other nouns with a meaning similar to the genitive: a police car, theatre chairs.

Some verbs denote possession:

Have. He has got money.

Belong. It has a more legalistic sense: the money belongs to him. It also means “to be a member”. He belongs to this club.

Own. It also has a legalistic sense. He owns two buildings in the city.

Possess: it has an official sense. He doesn´t possess any degree.

Lack: it means “not to have”.

Others: include, exclude, contain.

Possessive relative: whose.