What Is Possessive Genitive Case in English Grammar?

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In English grammar, possessive case is the case (or function) of an inflected form of a noun (Santa's, the boss's) showing ownership, measurement, or source. In addition to the -'s ending (a clitic), the possessive can be expressed with of, particularly when the possessor is not alive (the top floor of the building, the base of the statue).

Possessive case also refers to a type of pronoun (mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs) or determiner (my, your, his, her, its, our, their) that indicates ownership, measurement, or source. (Note that his and its function as both pronouns and determiners.)

Examples and Observations

  • "I will not hide the teacher's Prozac." (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons)
  • "People who have given us their complete confidence believe that they have a right to ours. The inference is false: a gift confers no rights." (Friedrich Nietzsche)
  • "Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands." (Anne Frank)
  • "The winner's edge is all in the attitude, not aptitude." (Denis Waitley)
  • "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him." (Alan Jay Lerner)
  • "What precedes the possessive ending need not be a single-word compound but can be a phrase, as in my neighbor next door's dog, or even a clause, as in a woman I know's niece." (Laurel J. Brinton, The Structure of Modern English: A Linguistic Introduction. John Benjamins, 2000)

Possessives Before Gerunds

"In your writing, when a pronoun appears before a gerund (an -ing verbal used as a noun), use the possessive case. We have tasted their cooking. In this example, cooking is used as a noun and is the direct object of have tasted. If a pronoun appears before a participle, use the objective case. We have watched them cooking. In this second example, cooking is used as a participle to describe them." (Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy, The Scribner Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Allyn and Bacon, 2001)

The Decline of the Possessive Apostrophe

"The apostrophe is the stepchild of English orthography. It is neither fish nor fowl, typographer's convenience, nor true punctuation...The possessive apostrophe is a grammatical anomaly, a vestigial case marker — appropriately shaped like the human appendix — in a noun system that has otherwise dispensed with cases... Evidence of its demise is apparent in newspapers, on billboards, on menus. Our students, understandably confused, alternately abuse it and feel abused by it...

...Thus we may contemplate with relative equanimity the eventual loss — for such seems inevitable in time — of the possessive apostrophe. We may mourn its passing and, perhaps, armed with grammar texts and rules (poor weapons at best) prolong its stay for awhile. But we cannot, nor should we wish to, preserve it indefinitely. We would do well to recognize that the outrages perpetrated upon the apostrophe by our students reflect an increasingly common practice outside the classroom, and temper the insistence of our lessons...

...And, when all is said and done, the loss will not be a great one." (Elizabeth S. Sklar, "The Possessive Apostrophe: The Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark." College English, October 1976)

Possessive and Genitive

"The genitive has also been called the possessive, since one of its meanings has been to denote the possessor of what is referred to by the second noun phrase, as in "The couple's home." But possession has to be interpreted liberally if it is to cover many instances of the genitive and the of-phrase. In a liberal interpretation, we could count as possession any connections between the two nouns where the verbs possess or have can be used in a paraphrase; for example, family relationships: Tom's son ("the son that Tom has").

Mexico City's (Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford Univ. Press, 1996)

False Possessives

"The apostrophe generally should not be used after a word that is more descriptive than possessive, except for a plural not ending in s: Explorers Hall, Diners Club, the Department of Veterans Affairs, teachers college but teacher's guide, St. Elizabeths Hospital, Teamsters Union, visitors center, children's hospital. But the Ladies' Home Journal, the National Governors' Association." (The National Geographic Style Manual. National Geographic Society, 2012)

The Lighter Side of Possessives

Cartman: Give me back my kidney!
Stan: Dude, please, Kyle needs it!
Cartman: It's mine! Not yours, mine! Give it back right now or there's going to be Hell to pay! ("Cherokee Hair Tampons." South Park, 2000)

Danny Butterman: All right, Pete?
Nicholas Angel: Do you know this man?
Danny Butterman: Yeah. He's Auntie Jackie's sister's brother's boy. (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz, 2007)

"My best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it's pretty serious." (Kristy Swanson as Simone, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, 1986)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Possessive Genitive Case in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/possessive-genitive-case-1691645. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is Possessive Genitive Case in English Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/possessive-genitive-case-1691645 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Possessive Genitive Case in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/possessive-genitive-case-1691645 (accessed June 9, 2023).