possessive nouns in English grammar

Referring once more to my previous post complaining about technology changing and making it difficult to do what once were simple things before you acquired the newest and shiniest new computer program, I’m unable to bring that slide show featuring a beautiful new Utah/Idaho discovery of a new weekend getaway, Bear Lake. I’ll have to work on the issue a little more, or change my venue, or use only a few pictures. But there are other things on my mind nearly as impressing, so I’ll set that problem aside a few days and write about another problem I’ve discovered.

All you grammar enthusiasts, please put your English nerd hat on and help me out here. I’ve always had a few grammar issues locked in my noggin, but usually I get over them, or ignore them if they don’t pertain to my everyday life. I’m done for instance. The only thing on earth that can be or boast that it’s done in my vernacular is something from the oven. Then I still have the authority to decide for myself and check by poking it gently in the bellybutton center and either agreeing or deciding nope, not quite, maybe another five minutes! Don’t remember the rule, but it has something to do with verb agreement–i.e., I have done (the assignment or whatever) and not I am done. It’s quite possible I’m wrong, the older I get the less I realize I know, so if you’re prone to say I’m done, just go right ahead and don’t mind my eccentricities.

On the other hand, Hubby recently brought up another grammar question, this one about possessive nouns. He had taken a turn at writing the agenda for the next day’s curriculum committee meeting because nobody volunteered to do it. (See? There it crops up again, can day be possessive?) Hubby was educated in India and learned English in the Imperial British style. He says he was taught that inanimate nouns cannot be possessive, therefore day’s meeting would be written correctly as days meeting or meeting of the day. It sounds like the committee members were either getting their high on showing off their grammar skills, or else being very nit-picky, depending on which side of the bed you got up on, but they wanted a correction–add the apostrophe in the “corrected” meeting announcement. I think their discussion was bounced around for a few minutes and he added the apostrophe, but still didn’t think it was correct.

I’ve noticed over the years that possessive nouns seem to be one of hardest things for some people to get right. Did I just hear somebody say apostrophe “s” after the noun that own’s the thing? Bingo. That’s how I was taught in those backwoods schools down in Florida in the 1950’s. The problem is that it can be a little confusing sometimes to separate those apostrophes that show possession from those used for contractions that indicate a missing letter in two words, thereby shortening them into one. You’ve probably noticed I do that–A LOT–see?

Is it Virtue is its own reward, or Virtue is it’s own reward? Of course it’s easy to say in this case that it’s is a conjunction to show the “i” is missing. But then, if we go back to possessive noun rules, does “it” own virtue? See how confusing correct grammar can get?

What do you in blog land think? I’d love to learn how you were taught–especially my readers outside the U.S., and particularly those who were British educated or those who speak English as a second language. What is your take on this question of possessive noun rules?

And one other favor I would ask of any of you who’d indulge me…that slideshow of my ancestors/family on MY PAGES (see About Me) in the sidebar. Has it lost the music that used to play when you opened the page to see the show? Or is the problem only mine? That program I used, Slide.com, has–yep, you guessed it, changed since way back then!

17 thoughts on “possessive nouns in English grammar

  1. No music. When you begin looking at the slides something called SuperPoke Pets comes up and asks you to play. I think you need plan B.

    I’m not a grammar maven, but I think “its” is a special case. If you write “it’s,” it is the contraction of it is. So your sentence would be “Virtue is it is own reward.” The possessive “its” doesn’t use the apostrophe. I could be wrong, but that’s what I’ve always thought.

    • So the consensus is no music. Too bad! The music sort of “made” the presentation. Like you say, back to plan B. Life is so complicated sometimes! About its vs it’s. I personally have no problem distinguishing these, I was just trying to be cute and it didn’t work. But I really am curious if English grammar rules differ country to country, or is there one and only one way. Can non-animate nouns show possession?

  2. Alice–I think you shouldn’t worry about grammar anymore because they are changing the rules. I just read in the paper not long ago that the old rule of putting yourself last as “my sister and I” is no longer considered the rule. It is now okay to say “me and my sister”. It used to be that in order to know which was correct–you left out the other person so if you said “My sister and (I or me) went to the store” you knew that if you said “me went to the store” it didn’t make sense so you must use I in this instance. Now grammarians (?) have decided it’s okay either way. Huh? Well that just makes as much sense as saying it’s okay to say ain’t–and you know what–they say it IS okay to say ain’t. So I say grammer schammer–it don’t matter anymore.

    • Live long enough and everything changes! That seems to be the rule, Nina. Well, I’ll refuse to sweat it and just go on doing it my way as often as I’m able.

  3. Hi Alice,

    Let the editor chime in. It’s = it is (always). “Its” is the possessive form of the personal pronoun it.

    I was taught that the possessive form implies “of” (not necessarily ownership) in American English. Given that, the “meeting of the day” would be the “day’s meeting”. The “song of the nightingale” would be “the nightingale’s song”.

    However, the English language is a living language that is evolving over time. Let’s face it, we now blog. “Text” is a verb with a whole new meaning from the noun “text”. (Texting while driving can even kill you). And, we can “google” the correct use of apostrophes, even though Google® doesn’t appreciate that use of their trade name.

    There is nothing straightforward about English usage and grammar. That’s why we need trained editors.


    • Thanks, Michelle. So the consensus seems to be that days meeting should show the apostrophe, day’s meeting, even though the word day is inanimate. And yes, English is a living, evolving language. My daughter reminds me if it weren’t we’d still be talking like Shakespeare wrote.

  4. Just imagine–Shakespeare had never even heard the word “blog”! Actually, the first English grammars date from around his time, and “the rules” weren’t set until much later. British writers not only spell things funny, but they also use funny verbs (did you see my picture of the sign for the National Archives train station, which instructs one to “Alight Here”?) And, they frequently use a construction that I mark on my students’ papers as an error, the comma splice.

    Possessive pronouns, as people have said, don’t require apostrophes because they are already possessive forms without additions. You need the apostrophe when you apply it to regular nouns, and even inanimate objects can have possession of things (my car’s windshield, for instance).
    I’d take my nerd hat off, but I think it’s grown in now.

    • Oh, I love “alight here!” How charming. And I have to say since the British came first, the American versions of grammar and spelling rules are probably the “funny” ones and the Brits own the originals!

      Just sayin’.

    • Well I was hoping you’d come aboard and check it out. Pop refuses to accept that–by American English tenements at least–he was wrong. You know how he hates to be wrong, and simply refuses to be so! 🙄

  5. P.S. Checked out your FLICKR PHOTOS and so enjoyed the trip to Bear Lake. Looked like you had the whole lake to yourselves!!! Such gorgeous scenery.

    Glad the Bears or the old woman’s brew weren’t home to interrupt the solitary-ness! 🙂

  6. You know you should never take any word advice from someone who grew up with bilingual parents and comes from New Orleans – if you knew half of what we say around here, you’d drop your dictionary – just look at Who Dat! which actually has changed from a question to a declarative since the Super Bowl. But as an editor I have to agree with Michelle – English is a living language and many nouns have become verbs (which vexes me) – she authored the book – say what? I’ll leave you with my favorite New Orleans saying “whatyagonnado?”

  7. After 4 years of Latin and three years of German (I don’t count the French because it wssn’t useful in this case), I think I am qualified to say that it’s not the language that’s changing: it’s that people no longer know what is correct. It will never be correct to say “Me and my sister”; it’s just that so many people listen to bad TV, they think that wrong is right. Grammar is taught so poorly in the U that people have spoken correctly solely through using what they “hear” as right: this ability is leaving the average person and it’s frightening and sad.
    So— in modern English usage, the apostrophe is used as a genitive, implying possession. As several people said, it’s/its is a special case. The children’s room, the dog’s house, the automobile’s tires: all correct.Even if spell checker doesn’t wasnt to agree!

  8. There are many types of genitives but not all of them indicate possession.

    Look at this sentence:

    The children’s books were torn.

    Here we have a genetive where possession is indicated. The sense of the sentence is that books belonging to several children are in a state of disrepair. This is called a “specifying genitive”, and since children are living and animate, possession of the books can be attributed to them. You can often figure out if it’s a specifying genitive by replacing the possessing noun with words like “their”, “your”, “his”, “her” etc and retaining the meaning, so in this case “Their books were torn”.

    Here’s a similar sentence though:

    The children’s books were fun to read.

    There is the possibility of a double meaning here. One sense of the sentence could be that you read books belonging to a particular group of children and it was fun ie their books were fun to read, and therefore we are looking at a specifying genitive.

    Another possibility is that you read some books of the type that are usually written to be read by children and it was fun. Here, “children’s books” refers to specific types of books or category of books – books for children. It’s much like “women’s magazines” which are a type of magazine written for women, “men’s shirts” which are shirts made specifically for men, or “girls’ schools” which are schools for girls. These are called “classifying genitives” or “descriptive genitives”.

    “A day’s meeting” is an example of a descriptive genitive. It’s a meeting for a day – a type of meeting that lasts for a day, NOT a meeting that belongs to a day since a day is inanimate and cannot be attributed possession. This is like “a year’s wages”, which are wages for a category of time (a year) and not wages that belong to a year. Since the purpose of these types of genetives is to be descriptive/classifying and not possessive, the “inanimate” rule does not apply, a “a day’s meeting” is actually acceptable.

    • Sorry I’m so late getting back here, but I do appreciate your setting things really straight for me. Hubby appreciates it too as it validates his English-influence upbringing all the more. I’ll put your comment in my pocket for the next time I take meeting minutes! 🙂

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