Topic 16 – The expression of possession

Topic 16 – The expression of possession

I have based this essay on the following sources:

– Biber et all. Longman Grammar of spoken and written English.

– Jackson, Howard. Grammar and Meaning.

– Pullum and Huddleston. The Cambridge Grammar of English Language. 2002.

– Quirk & Sidney. A University Grammar of English.

In this essay I will deal with the following issues:

Firstly with the concept of situation.

Secondly with the different ways to express possession.

Thirdly with the possessive identifiers: the attributive and the independent possessive.

Fourthly the Saxon genitive: form, pronunciation, function, and meaning.

To end up with the ‘of-constructions’ and their use.

0. INTRODUCTION: What’s in a situation?

The VERB may be regarded as determining what other elements may or must accompany it in the sentence. A verb is not only a representative of a situation type, but it creates a situation which contains people who do things, people or things that have something done to them, and so on.

For example, the action verb “send” creates a scene which includes:

· a sender,

· a thing or person sent,

· and a destination to which the thing is sent, as in Anne stopped sending me money or, She sent me to London.

The sender, the thing/person sent and the recipient are PARTICIPANTS in the situation. Participants are realised especially by members of the word-class of nouns.

In general, the participants are the essential elements of a situation. We could add to the sentences further elements which would represent non-essential information as the CIRCUMSTANCES of a situation.


One way in which a participant may be identified is by the relation of POSSESSION and it is another means of identifying which participant we are talking about: e.g. We piled of my things into his car.

Possession IS SHOWED in English in 4 ways by:

· VERBS such as: have, belong to, own, etc.

· POSSESSIVE IDENTIFIERS (my, his, her, etc) and possessive PRONOUNS,

· a GENITIVE INFLECTION (‘s) on a noun,

· the OF-CONSTRUCTION introducing a noun in a relationship of possession to the preceding noun. This last one is the usual way of indicating possession for inanimates.


Some grammarians have distinguished between:

· ATTRIBUTIVE possessives

· and INDEPENDENT possessives (also called ‘nominals’ by Quirk).

Like personal pronouns, possessives show distinctions of person (1st, 2nd, 3rd), of number (singular & plural) and in the third person singular of gender (masculine, feminine, neuter).

ATTRIBUTIVE POSSESSIVES change according to the gender and number of the possessor and not, as in Spanish, to the person or thing possessed. They are usually in English before nouns demoting some part of the body, an article of clothing, or something else belonging to a person:

I broke my leg. I wear my pyjamas. She saved his life.

INDEPENDENT POSSESSIVES never have, unlike Spanish, the definite article preceding them. They are used to substitute an attributive possessive and a noun when the latter may be supplied from the context: e.g. He put his arm through mine.

They can act in all the main positions where a noun phrase is possible:

· SUBJECT: Can I borrow your pen? Yours works better than mine.

· SUBJECT COMPLEMENT: The books are ours (belong to us).

· OBJECT: Philip wanted a ball, so I let him borrow yours.

· PREPOSITIONAL COMPLEMENT: I parked our car directly behind theirs.

· IN COMPARISON AFTER THAN, AS: My parents are older than hers.


According to Quirk, English nouns have only two cases the unmarked COMMON case and the marked GENITIVE, also called the possessive.

The genitive of a noun IS FORMED as follows:

  • For singular & plural nouns not ending in ‘-s’, by adding apostrophe + ‘s’:

Boy’s life, people’s choice.

  • For plural nouns and classical names of more than one syllable ending in ‘-s’ adding apostrophe only:

The soldiers’ horses. Hercules’ labours.

  • With many other names ending in ‘-s’ the normal spelling is with apostrophe, though apostrophe + ‘s’ is not rare:

Dickens’ novels or Dickens’s novels.

The rules of PRONUNCIATION of the genitive suffix are identical with the rules for the pronunciation of the ‘-s’ suffix in plural nouns:

  • /z/ after voiced non-sibilants: boy’s, man’s, king’s.
  • /s/ after voiceless non-sibilants: Smith’s, cat’s, duke’s.
  • /iz/ after sibilants: horse’s.

We can find the genitive FUNCTIONING in two different ways:

  • When the genitive precedes a headword to which it is grammatically subordinated is called ATTRIBUTIVE GENITIVE: It’s my mother’s hat.

If the noun in the genitive refers to a particular or specific person or thing is called specifying genitive: My mother’s picture and if it denotes the class or kind to which the person or thing belongs is called classifying genitive: Sheep’s eyes, a giant’s task, a child’s play.

  • When the noun following the genitive is ellipted the genitive is called INDEPENDENT: I parked my car next to John’s, he is a friend of my father’s, I went to my uncle’s.

The possessive can express different MEANINGS:

  • POSSESSIVE GENITIVE. Its central use is to express possession:

My uncle’s book.

  • SUBJECTIVE GENITIVE. If the headword denotes an action, the genitive may denote the agent: His father’s consent.
  • OBJECTIVE GENITIVE. If the genitive indicates the object or receiver of the action: The prisoner’s release.
  • GENITIVE OF ORIGIN. England’s cheeses. My friend’s letter.
  • DESCRIPTIVE GENITIVE. Children’s shoes.
  • GENITIVE OF ATTRIBUTE. The victim’s outstanding courage.
  • PARTITIVE GENITIVE. The heart’s two ventricle.

*The last two are more usually expressed by the ‘of-construction’.


Finally, possessives include the of-phrases. This construction is used in the following cases:

  • With nouns denoting things: The leg of the table, the title of the book.
  • With ‘lower animals’: The wings of the butterfly.
  • In expressions with back, front, top, middle, end: The back of the car.
  • With words like piece, bit, slice, (partitives): A slice of bread.
  • When talking about characteristics of human being: A man of great courage.
  • When talking about a container and its content: A cup of tea.

Sometimes the GENITIVE is used instead of the ‘of-construction’:

  • With higher animals: The elephant’s trunk.
  • With collective nouns: The public’s opinion.
  • The temporal nouns: A week’s holidays.
  • With geographical and institutional names: London’s fire.
  • In a number of set sentences: For heaven’s sake.

But it is also possible to use both: the OF-CONSTRUCTION and the GENITIVE as in:

Dickens’ novels (it emphasizes ‘novels’ as much as ‘Dickens’) or

the novels of Dickens (it draws attention to the name of the author).