'X's Y' versus 'the Y of X'

[I had said I'd be blogging weekly, but that didn't happen when I had to travel for family reasons. I have got(ten) back to it, not that you'll always notice. I've decided that my goal is to *write* for the blog each week, but not necessarily to publish. So, I started writing this one last week, finished this week.]

I'm doing a lot of reading about the genitive case at the moment. Grammatical case is some kind of marking (e.g. a suffix) that shows what 'job' a noun is doing in a sentence. You might know a lot about case if you've studied German or Latin or Finnish (or some other languages), which have case suffixes on nouns. You'll know a little about case from being an English speaker who knows the differences between they, them, and theirs. Modern English marks pronouns for case, but not other nouns, except...

Old English (Anglo-Saxon) had a robust case system, which it got from the ancestor it shared with German. The case suffixes pretty much died during Middle English. (English lost a lot of other kinds of suffixes over the centuries too, in part because suffixes are the kinds of things that get swallowed up in speech and in part becuase they're the kind of thing that become vulnerable when different languages come into contact—as happened for English and Norman French nearly 1000 years ago.) But one English case suffix, rather than disappearing, morphed into something else, and that something is the scourge of English spelling, the apostrophe-s: 's

So in the Old-English poem Beowulf, you can read about Grendles guðcræft. That -es on the name of the monster Grendel is the forebear of 's. We can translate it as something like 'Grendel's power' or 'Grendel's warcraft'. That (masculine, singular) genitive case marker says that there's a very close relation between Grendel and the guðcræft. Grendel is the power's source or its possessor.

But when that poem gets translated into Modern English, the translators sometimes translate the -es as an 's and sometimes not:
the might of Grendel (Francis Gummere)  
Grendel's power of destruction (Seamus Heaney)
That's because something else happened in Middle English: English started using of in the way that French uses de to express genitive relations—because French got all up in English's business at that point. Because of that change, of occurs only 30 times in Beowulf (where it has its original meaning of 'away from' or 'off'*), but over 900 times in Gummere's translation of it (where it means next to nothing).

So English has ended up with two ways of expressing those kinds of relations. We tend to talk about them as being 'possessive' relations and of the X in X's Y or the Y of X as 'the possessor'.  But the relation is not necessarily possessive. Think about something like the theft of the bicycle and the bicycle's theft: the bicycle doesn't possess the theft. The relations between the nouns in 's/of expressions are varied and hard to pin down (but they are very close relationships, covering a lot of the same ground as the genitive in Old English).

We don't exactly use 's and of interchangeably, though, and even where we can use both we often have preferences for one or the other. One of the strongest predictors of whether it'll be 's  or of is the animacy of the thing in the X position (the 'possessor'). Linguists often talk about an animacy hierarchy in which expressions that refer to  animate things are preferred in certain positions in sentences over non-animate things. In terms of what's animate, humans (the teacher, Heidi) come above animals (the badger, the parrot) and collectives (the company, the union), which come above objects (the table, the book).  All of the below noun phrases are "grammatical" but the higher up the list we go, the more apt people are to use the 's instead of the of phrase, all other things being equal:
the teacher's size        the size of the teacher
the badger's size         the size of the badger
the union's size           the size of the union
the table's size            the size of the table
A lot is going on in that 'all other things being equal' (a phrase used in both AmE and BrE, but AmE also likes all else being equal). Some other things that swing a possessive in favo(u)r of 's phrasing rather than of phrasing are:
  • heavier (more syllables/more complex syntax) possessed NPs rather than lighter ones
    (the table's dirty and worn-out alumin(i)um edge vs the dirty and worn-out alumin(i)um edge of the table)
  • the need for denser texts, as in newspaper headlines 
  • speech (rather than writing)
  • informal writing style (rather than more formal writing styles)
  • the dialect being spoken
So, on the last point: English in general used to be a much stronger avoidance of 's on inanimate object names. Inanimate possessors have become more and more accepted in English over the last 200 years or so. But that change has been happening faster in American English than British. This is like a lot (but not all!) of other changes in English (see The Prodigal Tongue, or if you really like to read about statistical methods, Paul Baker's book)—the change has roots deep in English's history, but goes faster/slower in different places. In this change's case (like some others), the "newer" form ('s on inanimates) is perceived as less formal and it's more condensed (and therefore quicker to say/read). Both of these properties might characteri{s/z}e some differences between the cultures that maintain the "standard" versions of English in the two countries. AmE tolerates more informality and more brevity in more situations.

So, having been thinking about all this, I did a Difference of the Day on Twitter, showing these two charts:

Here you can see that North Americans are much more happy than others to say the book's cover or the book's title or the table's edge or the table's width (or whatever other nouns might go after book's and table's). Here's the flipside, the of versions, which I didn't post on Twitter.

The table chart goes with what we'd expect to see: BrE doing a lot more with of than AmE. But the book table has AmE doing more of the book than BrE. You know why? Because American talk about books more. No, really:

So that's a lot more detail than you needed in order to see the AmE/BrE difference, but, hey, reading is good for you!

*Why does off look like of? Because they used to be the same word!

Some of the things I've been reading that influenced this post:
Carlier, Anne and Jean-Christophe Verstraete. 2013. Genitive case and genitive constructions: an introduction. In Carlier and Verstraete (eds.), The genitive. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Carlier, Anne, Michèle Goyens and Béatrice Lamiroy. 2013. De: a genitive marker in French? Its grammaticalization path from Latin to French. In Carlier and Verstraete (eds.), The genitive. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt and Lars Hinrichs. 2008. Probabilistic determinants of genitive variation in spoken and written English: A multivariate comparison across time, space, and genres. In Terttu Nevalainen, IrmaTaavitsainen, Päivi Pahta, and Minna Korhonen (eds.), The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation: Corpus Evidence on English Past and Present. Amsterdam : John Benjamins.


  1. While it's only an illustration, I can't read "the argument with the management of the union" as anything other than "the argument with the union's management". I think you have to use 's to express the concept.

    1. You are right, and if you want to know the grammatical reason why, I can explain, but I was just too rushed in coming up with a long noun phrase. I have changed the example now.

  2. or “an argument with the way the union has been managed”.

  3. Interesting that I look at “table’s” vs “of the table” and realised that I would say, for example, “the table leg” or “the table top”. Turning the possessor into an adjective, I suppose. I haven’t investigated how far this goes, but it seems pretty common with furniture: “the door handle”, “the bedroom light”.

    Or is this just a standard form that I’m seeing in a different way?

    1. You're right, we use 'table' attributively like that. So I've gone back and had a look in the corpus at what the actual examples are, and have changed it in the blog. Thanks!

  4. I'm British and I would say "All else being equal". "All other things being equal" sounds overly verbose to me; if I heard someone said it I'd wonder whether they were foreign and why they didn't know that "all else..." was the normal idiom.

    1. It's not that the 'else' version isn't said in BrE, but:
      - 'else' is 3 times more common in AmE than BrE
      - 'other things' is about 2.5 times more common in BrE than 'else'

      ...in the GloWBE corpus.

      It must be said, BrE is often more verbose than AmE...

    2. I am also British, and I'd tend to say "Other things being equal", with no "all", rather than "all else". But then, British English is very far from monolithic!

    3. I'm British and I'd say "everything else" rather than "all else".

  5. I remember the humorist and musician Fritz Spiegl complaining about the phrase "London's Royal Festival Hall" as an example of journalese that shouldn't be allowed. He wrote a book about journalistic turns of phrase called Keep Taking the Tabloids, but if he mentioned it in there, I can't find it.

    1. Nor can I. Is it, perhaps, in his "The Joy of Words"? That, too, suffers from the lack of an index, meaning that I had to do the eye-straining chore of looking through every page, but I couldn't find it there, either. It's entirely possible that I missed it.

    2. I'm wondering if I heard him say it in a talk on the radio.

    3. National Geographic is full of inanimate possessives:"Atop Berlin's mighty Brandenburg Gate", etc..

  6. Time magazine used to stand out because of its anomalous genitives: in an attempt to sound bright and breezy (as well as save column inches) they would write Florida's governor, for example, which is decidedly odd. In spoken Standard German, the genitive is now completely lost except marginally with proper names; it has been pushed out by external dative possessors, as in the title of the popular article Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod 'the dative-NOM is the genetive-DAT its death'. English used to be able to do external dative possessors, but *Mama washed the hair to me today doesn't work any more, though in the 9C we could say þa sticode him mon þa eagan ut ‘then someone gouged him the eyes out’ just fine.

    1. David Marjanović04 April, 2020 14:48

      Actually, the most common replacement of the genitive in German is von – "of" just like in English. The "the.DAT-possessor.DAT-poss.pronoun" construction is most common with persons, and strictly avoided in anything I'd call Standard German.

      The emphatic dative is somewhat orthogonal to all of this. It wouldn't be (any more) ungrammatical to say "gouged him his eyes out"; German just deems the second mention of the topic unnecessary and drops it from the determiner. Latin went a step further: if you suddenly see a friend mentioned in a text, that's the topical person's friend, while in German just as in English you have to spell that out by using a possive pronoun.

  7. "In this change's case (like some others), the "newer" form ('s on inanimates) is perceived as less formal and it's more condensed (and therefore quicker to say/read)."

    I realize you're making a point with the way you've worded your opening here, but I wouldn't dream of writing "In this change's case ..." rather than "In the case of this change ..." Call me old fashioned, call me an old fogey, but it sounds singularly unmellifluous.

  8. Another factor I would tend to consider is emphasis. So for instance if I was stressing what was remarkable about the teacher or the table, I would moved the word I was emphasis[z]ing - size - closer to the verb, so: 'What was strange was the size of the teacher/table'.

  9. One also sees the 's' dropped or the 'of' construct avoided in favor of writing no modifiers at all. For example, the Florida governor, the book cover. Is this journalese?

    1. It's very common in journalism, but also found elsewhere. It's what I'm writing about at the moment for my book-in-progress, so I'll save the rest for there!

    2. That's something I look forward to reading more about! For years I've wondered why journalists do this when it doesn't even save space – to the contrary, "Finland elections" – and where the accepted adjecdtive wouldn't stand out.

  10. I have a feeling that airline attendants, once the plane has landed, always tend to say 'welcome to Chicago's O'Hare airport' or 'London's Heathrow airport' etc. I suppose they want to give a heads-up to people who are not in the city they hoped to be. But it always strikes me as an unnatural construction. I would say 'Chicago O'Hare' or 'London Heathrow' if I wanted to include the city name (see what I did there?)

    1. "London Heathrow" is the airport's correct name. London has several airports.

  11. While you're waiting for Lynne's book to come out, you can read Language Log on attributive placenames. Apparently nations are more likely to get attributive adjectives, while smaller units usually don't: the Canadian Parliament vs. the Texas Legislature. But there are many exceptions and complexities. I can believe the question could fill a book.

    Lots more at Language Log on the animacy hierarchy, too. If you think "the table's leg" and "this change's case" are strange, wait till you see "*The Haystack's Painting" — it's a poem inspired by an effort to make sense of the phrase!

    1. David Marjanović04 April, 2020 14:38

      The Texas Legislature is a bad example because there is no adjective to Texas – Texan is exclusively a noun meaning "person from Texas".

      Lacking an adjective and having to resort to noun compounding is a common situation in German, BTW.

    2. See the Language Log post. "Texas legislature" is not an isolated case, it goes with "California legislature", "Ohio legislature", "Alberta legislature". The pattern holds as well for classes of things: "Indiana lakes" (churches, weather, roads) is strongly preferred over "Indianan lakes" (etc.).

      *Why* is "Texan" only a demonym, not an attributive adjective? Probably because it's part of the pattern for states in general. And why does that pattern exist? That's the interesting question for linguists.

      The links may be hard to see because of the color scheme, so here they are separately:

      http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004214.html "More political morphology: Democrats, Great British, and geese"

      https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=22776 "*The Haystack's Painting"

    3. Ktschwarz, to them that are in the know, it might be 'correct' that 'Texan' can only be used as a noun and not as an adjective, but in BrEnglish, we would take it for granted that 'Texan' is an adjective that can be used as a noun. We would therefore talk quite happily about 'the Texan legislature'. There would, though, be an ambiguity as to whether 'The Texan governor' means 'the governor of Texas' (i.e. Texas's governor) or a governor (of anywhere) who happened also to be Texan.

    4. Hmm, I didn't realize there was a US/UK difference. Turns out, it's complicated. I searched the Guardian, Economist, and BBC websites, and in fact they do use "Texas legislature" and not "Texan legislature". On the other hand, "Californian wines" is preferred in UK media, versus "California wines" in the US. Many uses are unpredictable: "Texas history" and "Texan history" are about equally likely at the BBC.

      Note, that's just for states that have a convenient adjective in -an! For the difficult ones, such as Connecticut, the BBC falls back on "Connecticut lawmakers".

  12. It's maddening when there are two 'possessors' - it leads to ambiguous attribution when 's is used, or an elaborate construction for the X of Y:
    It's Bob and Jim's fault
    I blame it on Bob and Jim

    There must be better and more colourful examples out there

  13. “One of the strongest predictors of whether it'll be 's or of is the animacy of the thing....”

    I didn't think about this the first time through the article, but I think I am even less inclined to use the "of" form when speaking or writing of a specifically named person:

    "John's bicycle"
    * "the bicycle of John"

    I would be very surprised to hear the latter spontaneously used by a native speaker of English.

    And "English's native speaker" is right out. 8-)

    1. I can accept the plural, "English's native speakers", in a very restricted context, e.g. "English's native speakers are outnumbered by its second-language users."

      It works much better with a generic "language": "Critical knowledge about ecosystems may be lost when a language's last speaker dies." I have no idea why that is OK and "English's" isn't.

    2. "The bicycle of John" is so queer as to be wrong.


The book!

Follow by email

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)