Tag Archives: possessive


“This is mines!”

Mines? Can you really dig that?

It’s not standard English, that’s obvious: we’ve all learned that the predicate form of my is mine. Who hasn’t, in younger years, gotten something such as a Valentine card showing insects digging for gold with the text “Bee mine!” It wouldn’t ever be “Bee mines!” – would it? Even the monolexemic seagulls in Finding Nemo say “Mine! Mine!” not “Mines! Mines!”

And yet some people still use mines. And, as we sense instantly, it has an air of… immaturity? Youthful innocence? Something like that? It’s not exactly like the double-plural as seen in, for example, “Nasty hobbitses” – it doesn’t have that creepy tone. But it’s also not flavourless like the double plural in children. (What, didn’t you know that children is a double plural? The singular is child, and one old plural suffix – still seen in German – was –er, and another – also still seen in German, and evident in some old English words – was –en, and they got stacked together on child, with the first e dropped out. I’m tempted to say it’s because whenever there are several kids it always seems like there are twice as many as there actually are.)

Where does that extra –s come from? The Oxford English Dictionary explanation is straightforward and inarguable: it’s added by analogy with ours and yours. But somehow, because we have mine already, that –s can carry a flavour of some other –s suffixes.

Other? Sure. There’s the plural, of course, but if you can hear or see not just “These are mines” but also “That’s mines,” it’s clearly not a simple matching plural form. No, there are a couple more. One comes from the genitive used adverbially, which means the –(e)s that became –’s and –s’ but originally was much more widely used. We see it, among other places, in nights as in “She works nights” (contrast that with “She works hours,” which means not ‘she works hourly’ but ‘she works for a time period of multiple hours’), in besides to mean ‘in a by-the-side manner’, in anyways to mean ‘by any way’ (no, that’s not a plural foolishly added to an obviously singular word), and in amidst with an accidental extra t to give a sense that is very similar to amid but may signify something more distributive.

The other –s is what lexicographers call “hypocoristic,” which means it’s a diminutive form for nicknames, pet names, et cetera. You may know that Prince William’s nickname is Wills. There’s also Babs for Barbara, the friendly British term of address ducks (“I’ll ’ave it up right away, ducks”), din-dins for dinner, and so on. It’s related to the –sy suffix as seen in teensy, artsy-fartsy, BanksyBetsy, and Nancy.

Neither the adverbial nor the hypocoristic is thought to have had a role in the addition of the s to mine. But they may influence its reception and use now. After all, few people look words up in etymological dictionaries before using them, but everyone makes conjectures based on other things that sound and feel similar. Saying “That’s mines” may make it feel more ongoing or widespread than “That’s mine,” or may make it feel cuter. Or may just make it feel like it matches “That’s yours” better.

Mainly, though, when you read it, it will make you think of who uses it – who you have heard or seen using it, or who you imagine would. If you’re in Scotland or the north of England, you may hear it from various people, as it is said to have a certain regional currency; it’s attested since the 1600s and isn’t out of use yet. But if you’re in the US or Canada, you’re more likely to associate it with youth who haven’t had it badgered out of them yet.

As I said, mines (in this sense, as opposed to the plural noun) isn’t standard English. You wouldn’t use it in most documents. But precisely because it has a particular tone and association, you can call it up when you need to set the tone or establish something about a character who’s speaking – or be cute or ironic. Even “wrong” words have their uses. Our lexicon is a great, vast mine full of varied gems; indeed, it’s several mines. Not every word is a diamond, but they’re nearly all valuable for one purpose or another. And if you don’t want this word, well, then, it’s mines. I’ll keep it to toss it in at just the right moment.

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’


Planethood for the possessive

In my latest article for The Week, I take up another cause that’s not likely to go anywhere but is worth setting forth just to get people thinking about it and more aware of what’s going on in their language. What is it? It’s about the lady with all the money. Well, the lady with all the money’s cat. Actually, it’s the ladies with all the money. Or, anyway, the ladies with all the money’s cats. Or, no, in fact, it’s just those ’s possessives, which pretend to be suffixes but might be better treated as independent words:

Why we should stop using an apostrophe s for possessives


Are you a fan of its?

Sometimes editors (and others) wonder what the difference is between, say, “He’s not a fan of Cher” and “He’s not a fan of Cher’s.” Is there a distinction? Is it equally important in all instances?

There is a distinction: it’s between possession and association. In some cases it’s the same thing; in others, quite different. “A picture of Mr. Goldfine” is not a picture belonging to Mr. Goldfine but a picture depicting him; “A picture of Mr. Goldfine’s” is a picture belonging to him. (“Mr. Goldfine’s picture” can mean either because we use the “possessive” for both possession and association.)

When you talk about fandom, there is again the possible distinction between association and possession, but in that case it really refers to the same thing, just from a slightly different angle. “A fan of Cher’s” is the same as “a fan of Cher” but in the “Cher’s” case it gives a sense of there being a collection of fans belong to Cher, as opposed to it being simply an attitude on the part of the fan.

It also follows that because running in the rain is a kind of action, not an entity that can possess, “A fan of running in the rain’s” is odd.

English pronouns are more archaic than the rest of English; they preserve case distinctions that have been lost everywhere else, mainly because they’re so entrenched and we used them automatically by habit and without analysis. In cases such as this, a distinction can be made with them when there is a real distinction to be made: “A picture of him”; “A picture of his.” In instances where the distinction is not a significant one, we may hew to the older construction, which in this case uses the genitive because that was the case governed by this construction: “A fan of his” may seem more natural than “A fan of him” (though this will vary from speaker to speaker). (Languages that have full and productive cases systems for nouns tend to use different cases after different prepositions and depending on context; German and Latin are two languages that do this. Old English was another.) Note, however, that the association/possession distinction still matters: “I am not a fan of it” is fine; “I am not a fan of its” is probably not.


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.

What would result in you sounding better?

A fellow editor was wondering aloud (OK, on email) about a sentence with a construction similar to the above (What would result in you sounding better?). She thought perhaps it should be your rather than you: What would result in your sounding better? So… what would? Continue reading

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