When is the mark of the possessive case inappropriate?

This is a discussion thread · 2 replies
Mxsmanic:
Some of my students asked me last week which uses of the mark of the possessive case (apostrophe + s) are inappropriate or unnatural in contrast to constructions such as "the house of John," and I found that I couldn't really think of any rule offhand that explains when it's better to use a possessive case and when it's better to express possession the long way.
Can someone give me any ideas on guidelines I can propose? I looked in some grammar sources and they were silent on the topic.

Transpose hotmail and mxsmanic in my e-mail address to reach me directly.
This thread originates from within 'usenet', and as such the content and users are not guaranteed to have been moderated by our community.
CyberCypher:
Mxsmanic wrote on 25 Jul 2004:
[nq:1]Some of my students asked me last week which uses of the mark of the possessive case (apostrophe + s) are inappropriate or unnatural in contrast to constructions such as "the house of John,"[/nq]
"The house of John" is unnatural English unless it is being used to name a business or a dynastic place, eg, the House of Usher. Otherwise, it always has to be "John's house", unless it is in a structure like "The house of John's that I am referring to is the one he owns in Miami Beach, not the one he rents there".
[nq:1]and I found that I couldn't really think of any rule offhand that explains when it's better to use a possessive case and when it's better to express possession the long way.[/nq]
The rule that Michael Swan gives in Practical English Usage is that "we cannot usually put a possessive before another determiner and a noun. We can say 'my friend', 'Ann's friend' or 'that friend', but not 'a my friend' or 'that Ann's friend'(1). Instead, we use a structure with 'of' + 'possessive'."
"That policeman is a friend of mine." This is one of Swan's examples. It differs stylistically from "That policeman is my friend" and can differ in focus, but, other than a desire for brevity, I honestly can't think of why I'd use one form rather than the other without a specific context.
"Have you heard this new idea of the boss's?" is another of his examples. This seems to me to have a different tone from "Have you heard the boss's new idea?" The first one suggests to me that the speaker is criticising the idea, while the second seems less judgmental, but context will always have a significant bearing on this kind of nuance.
"He watched each gesture of hers as if she were a stranger" is another. This seems to put more emphasis on her gestures than would "He watched each of her gestures as if she were a stranger". It also seems to imply that he singled out her gestures and ignored the gestures of someone else. But without a context, it's hard to be certain.
[nq:1]Can someone give me any ideas on guidelines I can propose? I looked in some grammar sources and they were silent on the topic.[/nq]
I would almost always prefer the possessive-as-determiner structure over the possessive-with-of structure for brevity and informality and would tend to use the latter structure for mor formal writing or situations in which I wanted to draw more attention to the thing possessed rather than to the possessor, eg, "That car of John's is a real gas hog" puts the focus more on the car than does "John's car is a real gas hog".
I don't know if this is very helpful. I hope it is.

(1) "That Ann's friend" is okay if the "that" is used as a contrastive with "not this Ann's friend", though.

Franke: EFL teacher & medical editor.
For email, replace numbers with English alphabet.
This thread originates from within 'usenet', and as such the content and users are not guaranteed to have been moderated by our community.
Einde O'Callaghan:
[nq:1]"That policeman is a friend of mine." This is one of Swan's examples. It differs stylistically from "That policeman is ... for brevity, I honestly can't think of why I'd use one form rather than the other without a specific context.[/nq]
"That policeman is a friend of mine" seems to me to mean "That policeman is one of my friends", i.e. that the speaker has more than one friend. This isn't necessarily the only potential meaning, but in the absence of any other contextual evidence it's the first one I would assume.

Regards, Einde O'Callaghan
This thread originates from within 'usenet', and as such the content and users are not guaranteed to have been moderated by our community.
Live chat
Registered users can join here