Apostraphes's Possessive Usage

Back in primary school, I swear the rule of apostraphes was drilled into me that inanimate objects could not use the 's construction to show possessiveness. Only people can own things, so one could say Carl’s foot–one could not say the door’s hinges because the door can’t own anything.

For example, in the way I was taught:

  1. The door’s hinge (not correct, the door can’t own hinges)

  2. The doors hinge (correct?, the point of contention)

  3. The hinges of the door (grammatically correct, just forget the whole thing and avoid the issue)

  4. You stepped on Carl’s foot (correct, I think we can all agree on this one)

  5. You stepped on Carls foot (incorrect, I think we can all agree)

So you can see, 1 and 2 are where my grasp of the English language seems to be lacking. This is how I have been writing for a very long time, so I would like to know the correct way to use "'s"s. Was this just a preference of one of my teachers? Why have I gone so long without anyone correcting me? I have read in other locations on the internet that the ‘of’ construction in 3 is the preferred way to handle the issue, but yesterday I would have said with 100% certainty that “the doors hinge” used the possessive form correctly.

Your teacher was wrong. Any noun can take a possessive apostrophe, except pronouns which have their own possessive forms (e.g it -> its, with no apostrophe).

What **Ximenean **said. Well, 2) could technically be correct if the word “hinge” is not the noun/object, but the verb. As in, “The doors hinge on the principle of leverage” or somesuch. No possessive involved there, of course.

That being said, I’m not 100% clear on the difference between 1) and 3), or rather if there’s any hard rule regarding when each form can/must be used. As far as I am aware the only difference is stylistic and both forms are equally correct grammatically.

I would just say “door hinge” in the first case. But there’s nothing grammatical stopping an inanimate object from taking possession. As in, the purse’s zipper (but purse zipper is okay, too) or the toilet’s handle (or toilet handle).

I was taught the same way as the OP. Only people or animals own objects. I would never write the door’s hinge or the car’s motor. That would get you an F in my teacher’s class.

I would write…

The door hinge squeaks.

The car motor needs a tuneup.

Because you didn’t come here sooner. :stuck_out_tongue:

Seriously, while many teachers invent or perpetuate “rules” that exist for no other reason than to keep from having to teach kids the infinite nuances of the English language, this one is so completely wrong that I’ve never even heard of someone else mentioning it. That is, it’s not even used as a bad example of what teachers do to the language.

You now know better. Any noun can take the possessive.

It is true that in colloquial, but not formal, English, casual speakers often drop the possessive and create common terms like the door hinge or the toilet handle. However, the purse zipper would be wrong even in colloquial terms. Why? It’s not sanctioned by common usage. Colloquial English is like that. It admits exceptions because they are so common that their wrongness has worn off. It’s not logical, but that’s the system we all agree to.

I learned that rule not about apostrophes in general, but specifically to distinguish the contraction “it’s” (=it is) from the possessive “its” (= belongs to it).

In other words (referencing the previous post but one), “That’s not even right. That’s not even wrong.”

If we’re to argue that the etymology of the " 's" possessive comes from “his” as in Artemus Ward His Book or “John Ridde His Name” then I can see where your teacher might be coming from in concluding that, since you would not have said “the door his hinge” *, neither would you write “the door’s hinge”. But then “the door” would take “its” as a pronoun and this would elide to " 's" just the same – whereas you could argue that there was no route from “The Queen Her English” to “The Queen’s English”. And that way, I fear, madness lies, for females of all kinds are not about to give up their possessive " 's" at this time of day.

  • But the King James Bible is happy with "Put up again thy sword into his place: " (Matt. 26:52)

And just WHO, are “They”?:dubious:
I was taught to use the apostraphe in the same way that you described, but a quick perusal of this mornings newspaper, (see, what I mean! That was from habit.:smack:) seems to confirm that it is now used regardless of whether or not the possessor is animate. ie:human.:confused:

Wow - I’m shocked that teachers are teaching that objects do not use the possessive apostrophe. They are completely and utterly wrong.

Surely a quick glance at any published book, textbook, newspaper, magazine, or anything else would have raised questions?

(Oh, and it’s not a value judgement on whether objects can “own” things in a legal or moral sense; that’s an odd argument for a teacher to put forward).

The objection that inanimate objects are not able to possess things is invalid, anyway, because the so-called possessive is often used to indicate other kinds of one-to-one relationship than just ownership. When you say “my doctor” or “my employer” you don’t mean that the doctor or employer belongs to you.

Purse zipper, purse zipper, purse zipper…arrrrgggghhhhh???

That’s really the problem, here. Even rules that are “correct” and more or less helpful become excuses for language teachers to avoid the more difficult things to address. Many grade school English teachers, when teaching writing, will focus on sentence-level grammar only, ignoring global problems. It’s just easier to correct grammar.

However, this isn’t just about the nuances of English. In fact, it seems to be worse in classrooms of other languages, where a teacher will obsess over accent marks in French or Spanish, completely ignoring rhetoric or argumentation.

Well, the *grammar blue-noses will tell you that, except in extraordinary circumstances, only people should show ownership with the 's possessive construction.

Another example of some weird restrictions on possessive usage came up several years ago with some test in which this sentence was deemed incorrect by those standards. "Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels. . . . " The point of contention was the the antecedent of “her” is a possessive, which, according to some usage books is bad practice.

*For example, Wilson Follett’s “Modern American Usage” (1966)

This is correct in regards to the OP.

“Purse zipper” is not the possessive usage. Any noun can be an adjective for another noun in its singular form: trash can, garbage truck, wire hanger. In actuality, this form is the short form of the adjective clause “The X that is for Y,” e.g. the can that is for the trash = trash can.

On the other hand, the possessive usage needs to be used when you are talking about two similar items that do not have a normal adjective/noun relationship as used above. The car’s contents, for example, vs. the trunk’s contents.

On a side note, let’s not start a board war about whether it should be Tess’ vagina or Tess’s vagina, okeydokey? :smiley:

Interestin’. I never heard such a “rule” … and, dammit, I can’t find my Chicago Manual of Style. However, the online link is pretty clear: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/PossessivesandAttributives/PossessivesandAttributives11.html

I’d take that as definitive.

Definitively wishy-washy? :smiley:

I have heard of this rule. It was drilled into my head with a hundred other rules, by scary nuns, in grade school. However, the thing is that if this rule is true, then the word its shouldn’t exist, and it’s used all the time. Like many rules of this nature, I believe that your teacher was aiming at teaching a nuance without bothering to explain what that nuance is. There is a difference between “the door hinge,” “the door’s hinge,” and “the hinge of the door,” but it’s subtle, and thus not worth spending a lot of time on in class when there are myriad other things that are more important.

It also seems like some posters have an issue with “purse zipper,” but I have no idea what it is. “My purse zipper is broken” seems like a perfectly natural thing to say.

But in fact it doesn’t. It comes from the masculine genitive ending “-es”. The “-es” ending began to be written as “-'s” in early Modern English.

However, some writers in Early Modern English, in the incorrect belief that “-'s” was a contraction of “his”, produced examples of the form “Artemus Ward his Book”.

Indeed? I’m much obliged to you. :cool: