Tag Archives: genitive

Don’t be so possessive

My latest article for The Week looks at the rationale people give for wanting to leave the apostrophe out of Father(’)s Day, Mother(’)s Day, etc.: the fathers, mothers, and others don’t possess the days, so we shouldn’t use the possessive. And so here we see one of the most badly misnamed features in English grammar:

Stop calling possessives ‘possessive’



There are many ungenerous souls who are convinced that the English language is degenerating, that it bears less and less of the marks of its original genius, and they indignantly point out all the aberrations and illogicalities and assorted other illiteracies they discern, and generally behave like obnoxious [genitals]. About them all one thing is dead certain: they have not studied the history of the English language. They have no real idea how the words they use now got to be the way they are.

Exhibit A in this case is one of the most bedeviling things in the historical development of English: the genitive. Old English, like modern German and a number of other languages, had four cases, which are typically called (after their Latin general equivalents) nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. All nouns changed form according to these (and according to number – singular or plural). In modern English, pronouns change according to nominative (subject) and accusative (object), but other nouns do not, and dative (indirect object) is indicated by position or with the preposition to. But the genitive has survived… in a spuriously altered way, and with the dreadfully misleading name possessive.

The Old English genitive singular inflection, for most but not all nouns, ended in s or es: for instance, hund “dog” had hundes and cild “child” had cildes. Some nouns had other endings – oxa “ox” had oxan, and lufu “love” had lufes. For the genitive plural, it was an a version pretty much across the board: hunda, cildra, oxena, lufa.

Now tell me what you don’t see in those words.

An apostrophe.

Over time, the full set of inflections in English got simplified considerably, thanks in large part to contact with other languages and their speakers. The genitive came to be s everywhere, ultimately even on plurals. And somewhere in the Renaissance, some guys got the idea that the s on genitives was short for his: they figured that Johns feet was really John his feet contracted. (That kind of his-genitive was an occasional usage in Old English but was not the source of the suffix.)

Never mind that that doesn’t make sense for anything other than his; since then, all genitives in English (except the pronouns) have that apostrophe, which serves two purposes: a) to distinguish genitives from non-genitive plurals on paper (but not in speech, as it’s inaudible); b) to get a certain set of people riled up because another set of people can’t always manage to get the placement of those apostrophes straight – because they’re inaudible and a frankly inorganic imposition.

And this idea that it comes from a mark of possession also played into the habit of calling all genitives (and not just those indicating actual possession) possessives. Now, that’s a nice English word, so why not use it in place of that fussy Latin genitive, eh? (Aside from the fact that possessive comes from Latin too, of course.) I mean, what does genitive mean anyway? It does sound uncomfortably close to genitals. But there’s a reason for that.

The reason is that they have the same root, of course, as do generation and a number of other words (including genius, and even cognate has a common source – co-gn-ate – and is unrelated to cognition). The genitive case was named for the tendency of words in it to be the source or possessor of those they modify. But this is a tendency, and the name was applied post facto.

Cases are like prepositions: they can indicate quite a wide variety of things. The genitive case in English, even now, indicates not only possession but also, according to instance, agency (your editing of the book), source (dog’s breath), intended recipient (women’s shoes), honouree (Veterans’ Day), duration (a day’s work), thing or person affected (wolf’s bane), personal relationship (my enemy), and assorted similar others.

These are not possession: you do not possess your editing work once you have done it and sent it to a client, the dog does not possess its breath once it has breathed it, women’s shoes are women’s shoes even if they sit unsold in a store owned by a man, veterans do not possess the day that honours them, nor does a day possess the work done in it, wolves do not possess the herb that is purportedly their bane, and I do not have any title of ownership or other personal retention of my enemy.

Most of these forms can be rephrased with of phrases, and many of phrases can be rephrased with genitives. That tends to add to the confusion, especially when the of phrase goes the other way: two weeks’ notice (a notice quantified by two weeks) is also said as two weeks of notice. And the ending has become, in Modern English, not a suffix, really, but an enclitic – a particle that attaches to a word or even a whole phrase. Consider the Queen of England’s preference for tea and that guy you met at the café’s phone number. (The ambiguity this creates naturally increases the fun potential of English, the depth of the furrows in the brows of picklepusses, and the incomes of editors.)

Where it really gets interesting is cases where the genitive form has survived in old words. The genitive used to be used in even more ways than it is now; for one thing, back when it was apostrophe-free, it could be used without a following noun to indicate “of” or “by” or “at” the thing in the genitive. It could be used as a family name to indicate where a person lived – those who lived by the river might be called Rivers, and those who lived by the field might be called Fields. It could be used adverbially, too. If you worked at nighttime, you worked – and still work – nights. (Yes, that’s not a plural s, it’s a genitive s.) If you do something one time, you do it once (also an old genitive form, like twice and thrice). Some genitive forms even survive that don’t have the s on: in ten-foot pole, the foot is originally a genitive specifying ten (which, like numbers generally in English, is a kind of noun, not – as many mistakenly think – an adjective).

And if you’re adding something beside something else, you said – and say – besides, and if you did something by a side way, it was – and is – sideways, and something done of or by any way was – and is – anyways.

And there’s your proof that so many of those grammar gripers haven’t studied the history of the English language. How many people have you heard complain that anyways is an idiocy, an illogicality, an illiteratism, et cetera, because obviously it’s any way like it’s any thing? Well, it’s not. Obviously. And if someone starts in on you on something like that, you can sock it to them in the genitive.

How possessive should you be?

A colleague has asked about whether it’s better to use, for example,

a close friend of Jack’s and Diane’s


a close friend of Jack and Diane

She notes that the first one looks a bit funny, but that you’d use possessive (genitive) with the pronoun:

a close friend of theirs

In fact, both are actually correct. With pronouns, we use the genitive (but see below); this is a holdover from when English had a more thoroughgoing use of case (and indeed in German, which kept the inflections, you would use just the genitive and no preposition: ein enger Freund Jacks und Dianas). We used to match case variably to prepositions; this is why we can see from whence in old texts as normal.  But we have moved away from heavily inflecting nouns in general, and we no longer generally vary case according to preposition, which is why those who “stop and think about it” sometimes declare that from whence is redundant — we think of case as a paraphrase of preposition plus noun, or vice versa, which it isn’t really. To return to the issue at hand, in Modern English, as a standard rule (to which the genitive pronoun structure shown above is an exception), the complement of a preposition is structurally in the accusative case (though non-pronouns don’t manifest a difference morphologically between nominative and accusative), and so the non-’s version works.

There is a distinction that can be made in some contexts: compare

that criticism of his


that criticism of him

We use the possessive (genitive) in cases where there is a sense of belonging or attachment; we use the accusative where the of is functioning not as a genitive but as another kind of relation. In theory we can make the same distinction with regular nouns, and it works in some cases:

that criticism of John’s

that criticism of John

But in the case of a word such as friend there is no important distinction to be made. And in fact we can get away with the accusative even on the pronoun:

a close friend of them

It’s not quite as nice as

a close friend of theirs

but it is acceptable. When you go over to the actual nouns, however, it tends to be more natural the other way. Adding the ’s on the names might give a greater sense of belonging or attachment (and without it of a greater unidirectionality), or it might not; your results will vary.

Two weeks’ notice?

This one leaves many people uncertain and even provokes debate, as there have come to be competing standards: should it be, for instance, two weeks’ notice or two weeks notice? Continue reading


“Anyways,” said Jess, “he—”

“Oh, please,” Margot interrupted, wincing and setting down her cup. “Please don’t say anyways. Any goes with the singular. Any way.”

I looked at Margot as though she had just denied the law of gravity. “It’s not a plural,” I informed her. “It’s a genitive. The genitive as an active inflection survives now almost exclusively as the possessive, which has in recent centuries had an unetymological apostrophe inserted, but you see it surviving in forms such as names like Johns and Williams and in words such as anyways – meaning ‘of, or by, any way.’ The loss of the s is due to the same reanalysis you’re making, which is not new but is not historical.”

“Well, I don’t like it,” Margot declared. Other people in the coffee shop peered over their papers to see if there was some conflict that might prove entertaining. “We don’t form new words that way, so to heck with the old ones that use that.”

“So you’ll be chucking out woe is me too?” I said, arching eyebrow and relaxing back.

“That doesn’t have any genitive on it!” Margot protested.

“No,” said I, “it’s a retention of the whilom dative. ‘Woe is to me.'”

Whilom!” Jess said. “I love that word. And I love that you said ‘whilom dative.'” She leaned forward and clapped her hands together. “Guess why.”

I paused for just a moment, then smiled. “Because whilom is dative.”

“Yes!” she said gleefully.

“You mean you date yourself by using it,” Margot said drily, then moistened with some coffee. Everyone else in the joint, sniffing the general topic, had gone back into hiding.

“That would be solipsistic,” Jess replied, and turned back to me. “Dative plural.”

“Right, of course, the most consistent case ending in Old English: -um.” Just to prove I was capable of even greater pretentiousness, I started in on Beowulf: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum…”

“Not hwæt,” Jess riposted, “hwile. Um.”

“It sounds more ho-hum to me,” Margot interjected.

“Now, don’t talk whilom speaking,” Jess said, smirking. Score one for the Jess. “A while is a time, and whilom – from hwilum – is ‘at times.'”

“But now it really means ‘at past times’ or ‘at a past time,'” I added.

“But why not just use erstwhile?” Margot protested. “It sounds more snappy.”

“You could,” I said, “erst being ‘first,’ just as it is in modern German. But whilom has more the air of sometime, I think, while, of course, bespeaking greater erudition.”

“Or pretentiousness,” Jess added. Hey, how come she gets to be the one who, while knowledgeable, comes across as down-to-earth? I didn’t want to play “good logophile–bad logophile” here.

But I ploughed on in usual fashion. “The tastes are different, too, even aside from the register. Erstwhile has the t stop in the middle, and that ers almost sounds like hitting the brakes before it. It also calls forth first by rhyme as well as the German connection. Sometime starts with a hiss, and calls forth a common word with its own implications – sometimes being used variously for ‘never’ and ‘almost always.’ Whilom is softer and rounder, a glide, a liquid, a nasal; a word to put a baby to sleep. For a while. To while away time. Why not?”

“There can be a voiceless glide in it, too,” Jess pointed out. “If you really say it as a wh word.”

“Which we whilom did,” I added.

“And you do from time to time,” Margot pointed out. “But, say, none of these words can be used just to mean ‘from time to time’ or ‘temporary, at whatever time.'”

“Naw,” I said, “I think we’re stuck with temporary for that. And momentary. And various phrases.” But I looked over at Jess and she had a heck of a glint in her eye. Her hands dived into her purse; there was a sound like a raccoon trying to escape a junkheap avalanche, followed by the prestidigitation of a small notebook, which Jess opened and thrust forth as though it held a pearl picked up off the sidewalk. Which was not too far from the truth.

“It’s obsolete, of course,” she said, her voice taking on a slight hush. “But revive it next time you want to say ‘temporary’ – or should I say ‘time-turning.'” We leaned forward to the lambent bond paper and pronounced the pencilled treasure that described its own transit in the English language: “Whilwendlic.”

Words I have tasted have from time to time been suggested by readers, and I have been remiss in acknowledging those who suggest them. I shall try to make a practice of acknowledging my muses. Today’s word was recommended by Wilson Fowlie.