Topic 16 – The expression of possession

Topic 16 – The expression of possession

Possession is expressed in English through several different forms. In this topic, I am going to deal with these different ways of expressing possession and so I will divide my presentation into three different sections. The first one will deal with the way of expressing possession through ‘possessive’ words; the second one will be about the way of expressing possession through the genitive case; and finally, the third part will be about the problems that Spanish learners encounter when learning how to express possession in English, and about the problems the usage of the apostrophe S construction has in present day English even for native speakers.

Let’s start with my first section, dealing with the possessive words. In this section I will have a look at different aspects. I will speak about verbs used to express possession such as own; possessive adjectives such as my or yours; and possessive pronouns such as mine or whose.

Possession, on the one hand, can be expressed through possessive verbs such as have (got), own, possess or belong to, as can be seen in the following examples:

David Beckham has (got) a big house in Madrid

David Beckham owns a mansion in Madrid

David Beckham possesses a wonderful mansion in Madrid

This terrifically wondrous mansion belongs to David Beckham

On the other hand, possession can also be expressed through possessive adjectives such as MY, YOURS, HIS, HER, ITS…

I’d like this to be my wondrous mansion but it is not, it is his wonderfully semi-detached house

According to Michael Swan, the main feature of the possessive adjectives is that they cannot be used together with other determiners (like articles or demonstrative words). For instance, you cannot say *this is a his wondrous mansion or *the my uncle.

Thirdly, possession can also be expressed through possessive pronouns such as MINE, YOURS, HIS, HERS, OURS…

This enormously big mansion isn’t ours. It is his. Unfortunately, mine is this small.

Just the same as with possessive adjectives, possessive pronouns cannot be used with articles. You cannot say *that wonderfully enormous house is the mine

Fourthly, although I have previously said that articles cannot be used with possessive adjectives or pronouns, I should say that the can be used as a possessive with the names of parts of the body, instead of a possessive word, but only after prepositions, and only in certain expressions (mostly when talking about blows, pains, and similar things). For instance, let’s compare:

She had a bird on her shoulder // She had a pain in the shoulder

Finally, I also have to speak about whose, which has a double grammatical function, both as a determiner and as a pronoun as in the examples of interrogative sentences. It is also a relative pronoun:

Whose is this enormously huge mansion? // Whose mansion is that?

Beckham is the man whose wife hates Ana Obregón

Once I have spoken about the ways of expressing possession through possessive words (let’s remember: possessive verbs, possessive adjectives, possessive pronouns, the in determined constructions and the relative pronoun whose), I am going to move to following section of my topic, dealing with the ways of expressing possession through the genitive case.

In many cases, such as in Latin, for instance, nouns have endings which show how the noun phrase is being used within the clause, that is to say, whether it is acting as a subject or object, for example. The set of endings is known as the CASE SYSTEM. English does not have a complex case system, like the one which was used in Latin. There are only two cases: a common case, where the noun has no ending at all, and the genitive.

Thus, I will divide this second section of my presentation into two different parts: the first one dealing with the form of the genitive, and the second with its usage.

As for form, the genitive is made in English by adding an S to the singular form of the noun. In writing, this appears with a preceding apostrophe.

This is Beckham’s wonderful mansion

With most plural nouns, an S ending is already present, so the written form adds a following apostrophe.

The Beckhams’ wondrous mansion

However, there are some exceptions to the aforementioned rule. The apostrophe S is used in some irregular cases such as the men’s mansion. Greek names of more than one syllable ending in -s do not add an apostrophe and s, only an apostrophe like in Socrates’ work. The same happens with some fixed expressions such as for goodness’ sake. Besides, names ending in the voiced sound s /z/ vary in usage; we find both Dickens’s novels and Dickens’ novels.

Before moving on, I would like to mention that not all the forms of the saxon genitive express possession. Take for instance Today’s lunch. Is that possession? Does the lunch belong to today? No, it doesn’t. It is a time expression. Some may express description (women’s college= a college for women), origin (France’s wines), and so on. In this topic I am going to deal only with those cases in which the genitive expresses possession, as the title of the topic reads.

There is also another form of genitive which is called the of-genitive. Let’s compare: The mansion’s name is Beckhamlandia to The name of the mansion is Beckhamlandia.

The choice between the apostrophe S genitive and the of-genitive is largely based on factors of gender and style. Personal nouns and the higher animals tend to take the genitive ending; inanimate nouns take the of-genitive such as:

Beckham’s dog’s house is much better than the houses of dolls they sell in Harrods.

The ‘s genitive is also used with geographical names (Spain’s future will be decided by Catalonian Politicians), and with many nouns of special relevance to human activity (Her life’s aim is to buy the most expensive clothes in el Corte Inglés; the body’s needs).

As for usage, I can say that the genitive is used mainly to express possession, though there are other uses such as expressing origin, describing something, etc. I will be looking just at the expression of possession. There are four special uses of the genitive case: On the one hand, the group genitive occurs when the genitive ending is attached to a noun which follows the head noun of the phrase. Let’s compare: This is Beckham’s big mansion with The actor of the Days of our Lives’ big mansion. In the second case, the possessor is the actor, not “our lives”; but the ending nonetheless is added to “lives”. Another type of group genitive is that is which we have two possessors and just one possessed thing, in which case the ‘s is added to the last element.

Victoria and David’s children had their own car when they were born

On the other hand, the independent genitive occurs when the noun following the genitive is omitted, because the context makes it obvious:

Beckham’s mansion is bigger than Ana Obregon’s.

A similar use is found when the genitive refers to premises or establishments: the local genitive:

Famous people eat at Lucio’s

Beckham goes everyday to the hairdresser’s

It is sometimes possible to have both the genitive ending and the of-construction simultaneously; it is what is called the post-genitive as in:

Beckham is a friend of my uncle’s

His enormous big mansion is a construction of Boffil’s

This post-genitive usage expresses a less definite meaning than the alternative: my uncle’s friend or Boffil’s construction.

Thus, once I have dealt with the two first sections of my presentation, dealing with the expression of possession through possessive words (such as possessive verbs, possessive adjectives and pronouns, the article the in several occasions and the relative pronoun whose), and with the expression of possession through the genitive case, I will now focus on the third section of my presentation, dealing with the problems that Spanish speakers may encounter when learning how to express possession in English, as well as the problems that even native speakers find with the usage of the apostrophe S construction.

To begin with, the apostrophe was introduced into English in the 16th c., and became widespread during the 17th. However, there was much uncertainty about its use, especially in the plural, even until the middle of the 19th c. Then grammarians laid down rules saying how it should be used. However, during the 20th c., uncertainty re-emerged. In fact, there is now a strong tendency to omit the apostrophe. This is not entirely due to a lack of education; many moderns sign writers and typological designers, for example, think that the apostrophe is fussy and old-fashioned.

Around the turn of the 20th c., the apostrophe came to be dropped from the name of many banks and many businesses (for instance, the well-known Harrods or Lloyds). Today it is almost always omitted in shop signs, placards, and other notices. In fact, on the London Underground, the signs say St. Pauls and Earls Court, with no apostrophe. In Oxford Street shops we find Ladies wear and Mans Shop. A further reason for the omission of the apostrophe is the use of new technologies. For instance, when writing text messages sometimes we find that it is difficult to find the apostrophe, so we omit it. When writing formal letters, punctuations signs are often dropped, as that means saving time, and time is money.

Thus, as a result of these changing attitudes, many people nowadays feel unsure about the correct use of the apostrophe, and add it before plural endings and verb endings, such as We sell fresh pie’s or Everyone like’s our chips. However, this usage is universally condemned by educated writers.

If even native speakers have problems when trying to decipher where to put the apostrophe in a group or phrase, it is not surprising, thus, that our Spanish students of English have problems too.

The main problem can be deduced from the fact that the apostrophe, unlike other forms of punctuation, is completely inaudible. Most elements of punctuation derive from actual speech. In spoken English, commas, colons and question marks will be represented by a change in intonation -not so the apostrophe. The other punctuation marks stand for something in addition to the written words: the apostrophe represents elements which have disappeared in the spoken form. In fact, the very word apostrophe is Greek and means “to turn away”. That is to say, it marks the place where a letter or letters have been ejected.

So, adapting this theory of “turning away letters”, I can say that the apostrophe in the possessive case in “Beckham’s big manor” originally stood for “Beckham his big manor”. Thus, it is not surprising that our students have problems when trying to decipher where to put the apostrophe, as it usually happens, demonstrated by the fact that they usually prefer a wrong construction of the of-genitive such as in “the friend of my brother” instead of the correct apostrophe s construction as in “my brother’s friend”. These mistakes do not only happen due to their insecurity when trying to put the apostrophe, but also due to the fact that this is the typical interference translation from the Spanish structure, something they should avoid doing from the very beginning. But, as we know, it is a hard task. But not impossible!

In conclusion this topic has dealt with the expression of possession in English, which can be expressed through possessive words such as possessive verbs, possessive adjectives and pronouns, the article the in several occasions, as well as the relative pronoun whose; and through the genitive case which can cause problems in terms of usage, not only for Spanish learners of English, but also for native speakers as well.