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Hi people!

This sentence was taken from one of David Crystal's (well-known linguist) books on the English Language:

"The design's asymmetries well represent the irregularities and erratic research paths which are so much a part of English language study." Here, we see an inanimate object being used in a possessive construction. I know that this is quite common, but some people still recommend avoiding the use of the inflected genitive with inanimate things. Indeed, I've seen people recommend it in this very forum. Contrary to this belief, there are other theories which support just the oppsoite, or rather, admit this use. Let me quote a definition of one type of genitive, the "descriptive":

"The descriptive genitive is one of several overlapping terms for some functions of the English genitive case different from those of the possessive genitive (as in Mary’s hat). The mountain’s top and a day’s pay are descriptive genitives. A few of the crustiest purists continue to argue that inanimate objects cannot use the genitive because they often cannot be said actually to possess the quality named, as in a day’s pay. In fact, the genitive case—in English as in Latin before it—has always had many more purposes than simply indicating possession, and descriptive (and other nonpossessive) genitives are and long have been Standard English."

Now, let me ask you these questions:

1. How can we distinguish between a descriptive genitive and a compound noun?

2. How can we decide whether it is better to use the inflected genitive, as in "the mountain's top" or the periphrastic genitive, as in "the top of the moutain"?

Furthermore, let me give five examples for you to decide how we should take them:

1a. Loading into memory non-resident programs as required is one task of the supervisor program.(= periphrastic genitive?)

1b. Loading into memory non-resident programs as required is one of the supervisor program's tasks. (= inflected genitive?)

1c. Loading into memory non-resident programs as required is one of the supervisor program tasks. (= compound noun?)

2a. Communicating directly with the hardware is the operating system role. (= compound noun?) I think this one's not possible, ciould you tell me why?

2b. Communicating directly with the hardware is the role of the operating system . (= periphrastic genitive?)

2c. Communicating directly with the hardware is the operating system's role. (= inflected genitive?)

3a. Supporting multiple programs and users is part of the mainframe operating sytems work. (= compound noun?) I think this construction is not possible for the other versions are quite clearer. Anyway, is it wrong?

3b. Supporting multiple programs and users is part of the work of mainframe operating sytems. (= periphrastic genitive?)

3c. Supporting multiple programs and users is part of the mainframe operating sytems' work. (= inflected genitive?)

4a. Allowing the computer to process data faster is the main reason for more memory installing. (= compound noun?) I think this one is utterly wrong, for the gerund, here "installing" should come first and, afterwards, its objects or complements. Is this explanation sound? Otherwise, the elements in the sentence are reversed, but is it acceptable anyway?

4b. Allowing the computer to process data faster is the main reason for installing more memory. IMO, this is the correct one.

4c. Allowing the computer to process data faster is the main reason for more memory's installing. Does'n sound fine at all.

5a. Processing quickly large amounts of data is one of the most important functions of a computer. IMO, this is the best option in this group.

5b. Processing quickly large amounts of data is one of the most important computer functions. Can we state it as a compound noun?

5c. Processing quickly large amounts of data is one of the most important computer's functions. Doesn't sound right, but don't know why. Any suggestions?

Thanks a lot!

Mara.
Comments  
Riglos1. How can we distinguish between a descriptive genitive and a compound noun?

The descriptive Genative will be an inflected Genative using the apostrophe, just like the possessive. This appears to be an argument of semantics; the foundation of which rests in whether you accept the premise that inanimate objects can possess attributes.
Riglos2. How can we decide whether it is better to use the inflected genitive, as in "the mountain's top" or the periphrastic genitive, as in "the top of the moutain"?

This will depend on the audience. If you're speaking with the 'crusty purist' from the first paragraph, you may want to use periphrastic Genatives, otherwise it may just be a matter rhythm, meter, and alliteration. In my opinion, compound nouns are preferred over inflected Genatives of inanimate objects.

Also, use these:

1a. Loading into memory non-resident programs as required is one task of the supervisor program.(= periphrastic genitive?)
2b. Communicating directly with the hardware is the role of the operating system . (= periphrastic genitive?)

Riglos3a. Supporting multiple programs and users is part of the mainframe operating sytems work. (= compound noun?) I think this construction is not possible for the other versions are quite clearer. Anyway, is it wrong?
Not wrong, but terribly cumbersome.

3b. Supporting multiple programs and users is part of the work of mainframe operating sytems. (= periphrastic genitive?)

Riglos4a. Allowing the computer to process data faster is the main reason for more memory installing. (= compound noun?) I think this one is utterly wrong, for the gerund, here "installing" should come first and, afterwards, its objects or complements. Is this explanation sound? Otherwise, the elements in the sentence are reversed, but is it acceptable anyway?

Memory installing isn't really a compound noun, rather a verbal backformation converted to a gerund. These are very bad constructions and should be avoided.

Consider the following:
underage drinking (n.) > underage drink (v.) ?!?
people watching (n.) > people watch (v.) ?!?

4b. Allowing the computer to process data faster is the main reason for installing more memory.

5a. Processing quickly large amounts of data is one of the most important functions of a computer.

I would use 'Processing large amounts of data quickly is one of...' because quickly describes not just how it processes, but how it process large amounts of data.

Mind you, these are just my opinions, but I hope they helped a little.

C
Hello Mara

This is not an answer to your question. This is just a comment on the question you raised.

All of what you are asking is exactly the things that have annoyed me long time since I began studying English. Some native speakers grudge that we ESLs are bad in using compound noun phrases. In my opinion, however, it is not our fault, but it is because English is chaotic about formation of compound noun phrases. Take a phrase like "mountain top coffee shop" for example. Does it mean "mountain top" or "top coffee" or "top (coffee shop)"? I am wondering who can tell it. Maybe nobody other than the person who speaks it can know it. This sort of chaos, I guess, is a result of the long time history in which English speakers' ancestors were too lazy to learn correctly the way their parents spoke and wrote their language. First of all, they failed to learn how to use genitive cases correctly in forming compound noun phrases. Secondly they failed to learn how to use hyphens to form compound noun phrases. Finally some of their ancestors, especially newspaper writers, intentionally elided genitive apostrophes and hyphens in compound noun phrases to save spaces and ink and the readers imitated the styles without considering the grammaticality of such elisions. How can we ESLs learn such chaotic word formation? I would say I can't and I won't.

paco
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Gee paco, you sure showed us yokels a thing or two.

Mara: paco has made some good points about the apparently chaotic nature of English, but worded it as if he were a three-year-old who had just been told he may not have a cookie. Besides which, parrots can speak facts, but can't seem to answer your question.

C
Hi Paco,

I trust that this characterization of my ancestors as lazy, inconsiderate failures is intended purely in a linguistic sense? (ha-ha)

You're right that learning English can be frustrating.

Best wishes, Clive
Hi everybody and thanks for your comments!

The thing with the apparently chaotic nature of English is that it makes correcting and preparing classes a really hard task (at least for me)! The problem I'm usually faced with is: how am I supposed to correct this if there aren't clear rules about it? Luckily, you guys help me a lot! Since some of you have been teaching for some time now, I'd like to ask you for some advice on how to handle these issues when it comes to explaining them to my students.

Thanks a lot!

Mara.
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Paco -- I'm sorry English is so frustrating! A few comments come to mind:

First, I can see how it seems to you that the current chaotic state of English is a result of generations of laziness regarding grammatical rules, but I would prefer to think of it this way: the current flexibility of the English language results from a process of natural evolution.

Secondly, I must say that in 50 years of speaking English, and the usual number of years of taking English classes in school (and paying attention), I had never heard the rule that the 's genitive should only be used with animate nouns until I started reading this board. Now that I think about it, I would say that I generally do observe it -- I would be more likely to say "the table leg" rather than "the table's leg" -- but it would never have occurred to be before to consider "the table's leg" as incorrect grammar, and it still really does not bother me a bit. (As opposed to, say, "those kind of pants," which still sounds terrible to me even though I know it is sanctioned by reputable grammarians.) If I heard someone say "the table's leg" I would not think (as Mr. Micawber stated in another thread) "oh, that's a non-native speaker." I wouldn't think twice about it. Maybe this rule is still more active in British English and fading out in America.

Finally, I agree that it is probably a near-impossible task for someone who is not surrounded by spoken English to learn to speak like a native -- but also, that it is not necessary. Your English is excellent, Paco, and your knowledge of English grammar far, far surpasses that of the ordinary native speaker. Foreigners tend to speak English a little more formally, a little less colloquially than natives, but that's interesting and charming. What a dull place the world would be if we all spoke exactly alike! Emotion: smile

Now I have to go decorate cookies and bake pies - tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Bye!
Hi guys,

Mara - I've never thought of English as chaotic. In my experience, it seems to have enough structure to take a reasonably methodical approach to teaching it. Two not very original suggestions I'd like to offer are these.

First, don't dwell unduly on exceptions to the rule, particularly with lower levels. Second, when faced with a purely idiomatic situation, and no good answer to 'why?', just smile and say 'That's English! Sorry!' I find students are incredibly accepting and forgiving of this. They certainly won't hold you personnaly responsible.

Khoff - Happy Thanksgiving! We Canadians had Thanksgiving last month. You're not going to wear those kind of pants, are you?

Best wishes, Clive
Hello Khoff

It's really kind of you to console me that way. I don't think English is chaotic as a whole, but as far as the noun phrase formation is concerned, it looks as if chaotic at least to me. Anyway, I like your attitude towards non-native speakers' English. It would be the best if we could speak and write English as naturally as you can feel as if we were native speakers. But as far as I'm concerned, I have already given up the idea of acquiring such excellent skills. My current target of English learning is just to get an ability enough to have talks freely with people on the online sites like here.

Enjoy Thanksgiving with your family!

paco
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