The 7 Types of Possessive Case

By Mark Nichol

The possessive case is used to indicate relationships between one person, place, or thing and another. However, it’s more accurate to call it by its alternate name, the genitive case (genitive means, essentially, “generation”), because in many uses, one person, place, or thing doesn’t actually belong to the other.

The genitive is indicated one of two ways: A singular noun is followed by an apostrophe and the letter s (as with book’s), and an apostrophe alone follows a plural noun that ends in s or es (as with teams’ or arches’). The genitive form of an irregular plural noun, one in which a change in spelling, rather than s or es, marks the word as having a plural form (such as men), is treated as if the word were a singular noun (men’s).

Here are examples of the seven categories of genitive use.

1. One type of genitive case is that denoting occupation, or ownership or possession, as in “She walked into Jane’s office” or “John’s car is being repaired.” (In all genitive forms, the noun to which the apostrophe or the apostrophe and the s are attached is called the dependent, or modifier, noun; the word with which it is associated is the head, or modified, noun.)

2. Another is relationship, as in “The school’s principal is retiring this year.” (This idea can also be represented by omitting the apostrophe and the s — “The school principal is retiring this year” — but the meaning is slightly different; in the latter sentence, the reference is to a person identified as the school principal, whereas the genitive form treats the school and the principal as separate entities.)

In this category, the idea can be expressed in a phrase beginning with the head noun: “The principal of the school is retiring this year.” The previous type is not so flexible; “She walked into the office of Jane” is awkward, and constructions such as “She walked into the office belonging to [or occupied by] Jane” are usually unnecessarily verbose.

3. The genitive can also be used to express agency, or representation, as in “The board’s secretary consulted the minutes from the last meeting.” (The secretary is a member of the board but technically doesn’t belong to it.) “The secretary of the board consulted the minutes from the last meeting” is also correct, but as in the previous example, the emphasis is slightly different, and the first version is more concise.

4. Description is another function of the genitive, as in “She admired the fabric’s glossy sheen.” (Loosely speaking, the glossy sheen “belongs” to the fabric, but the phrase is, strictly, speaking, a description.)

5. Another category is that relating to the role of the person, place, or thing that serves as the subject of a sentence, as in “The officer’s report was conclusive.” (“The report of the officer was conclusive” has the same slight distinction of meaning as similar constructions in previous examples.)

6. Then there is the role of the person, place, or thing identified as the object of a sentence, as in “The baby’s delivery was uneventful” (which can be rendered “The delivery of the baby was uneventful” with a slight difference in the meaning).

7. The most troublesome genitive form is that in which a phrase including of is truncated, as in “He gave two weeks’ notice” in place of “He gave notice of two weeks”: Many writers mistakenly treat “two weeks” as simply a modifier of notice (“He gave two weeks notice”) rather than correctly including the apostrophe to indicate the genitive case.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


13 Responses to “The 7 Types of Possessive Case”

  • Matt Gaffney

    I agree with most of the suggestions, but feel they fall short.

    No suggestion deals with the possessive of singular nouns ending with an “s,” e.g., “Charles,” “Jesus,” and “New Orleans” (they’re not treated alike), nor is there any mention of many speakers’ and writers’ chronic failure to use a possessive for gerunds, e.g., “my swimming every day is essential to my physical well-being” rather than “me swimming every day is essential to my physical well-being.”

    Beyond the above concerns, how do we deal with the pesky rule-breaking, stand-alone possessive pronouns, e.g, “ours,” “yours,” “theirs,” etc.?

    This is an important topic; it demands much more thorough coverage.

  • Dann

    I see no difference in meaning between “the officer’s report” and “the report of the officer.” Granted, the latter seems a little stilted, but I see no difference.

  • Ken

    @Matt Gaffney

    For these questions I go back to my old dog-eared edition of Strunk and White. The possessive of Charles would be Charles’s, but the possessive of Jesus or Moses would be Jesus’ or “Moses’ because S&W makes an exception for ancient proper names ending in “es” or “is”.

    On the second question, S&W says pronominal possessives such as “hers,” “its,” “theirs,” yours,” and “ours” use the apostrophe to show possession.

  • Ken

    Oops. I was trying to do two things at once and got it wrong. Prenominal possessives do NOT take an apostrophe, but indefinite pronouns do, as in “one’s rights.”

  • James Redhouse

    What about Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? What kind of genetive is that?

  • Roberta B.

    The one I run into frequently that I question is “homeowners association.” Some writers insist on making it possessive – Homeowners’ Association, belonging to multiple homeowners. I believe the possessive is cumbersome and that it’s OK to use “homeowners” simply as an adjective as one would use City Council, not City’s Council. Opinions?

  • thebluebird11

    Oh Lord, #7! I have talked myself blue in the face (and typed myself blue in the fingers?) trying to get this through some people’s heads. In one of my jobs, I dictate discharge summaries on hospital patients, and for a pregnant woman, the summary will contain information regarding how far along she is in the pregnancy. So I might say, “This is a 25-year-old patient at 37 weeks of gestation,” and at times I get back transcribed reports saying “…37 weeks’ of gestation,” or “…37 weeks gestation.” It drives me crazy! I purposely dictate the word “of” so that the transcriptionist will not have to worry about putting an apostrophe in there LOL. I should be more tolerant; if this website has taught me anything, it is that I don’t know everything!

  • Mark Nichol

    Roberta B.:

    The question of whether to style the phrase as “homeowners’ association” or “homeowners association” is of whether to treat homeowners as a genitive or an attributive ( a noun modifying another noun). The best solution might be to firmly identify the word as attributive by using the singular form: “homeowner association.”

  • Rachel B

    I have a question regarding #7. During the holidays, I frequently see “New Year’s Eve,” which seems to be correct. But I also see “Christmas Eve,” which seems should be punctuated as “Christmas’ Eve.” Any thoughts?

  • Mark Nichol

    Roberta B.:

    In “Christmas Eve,” Christmas is an adjective modifying Eve. In “New Year’s Eve,” “New Year’s” is a genitive expressing a relationship with Eve. (In the latter phrase, the evening belongs to the new year, but in the former phrase, the evening is simply stated as being the one before Christmas.)

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the discussions above, there was quite a bit of confusion about the possessive cases of personal pronouns. Note that some were omitted. and some were included that did not belong.

    Let me handle that by listing them all:
    my, your, his, her, its, our, their.
    Note that most of these do not end in an “s”.

    “Genitive” is also a questionable word. In other languages, the genitive case is used in situatiuons other than possessive or adjectival. In German, specifically, the genitive case is used as the objects of certain pronouns, but there are only a few of these now. I will leave it up to you to check out the situation in languages like Arabic, Greek, Hindi, Korean, Malayalam, Old Norse, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Slovenian, and Turkish.

    There might be a vestige of this use in English, but it is a quaint one, and the only pronoun is “of”, and the pronouns can be modified a little bit:
    { of mine, of yours, of his, of its, of hers, of ours, of theirs}.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Mark Nichol:
    Another way of looking at the “Eves” is that they are proper nouns, and with proper nouns, people can do almost anything that they want to w/o following any rules of grammar. Hence, we could have these names just idiomatically: {New Years Eve, Easter Eve, Passover Eve, Thanksgiving Eve, Hannakah Eve, Christmas Eve, Doomsday Eve}.

    On a related subject, a friend and I had a discussion about “Ancient Egyption”. Is this one proper adjective that is treated as a unit, or does “Ancient” modifiy “Eguptian” which in turn modify something else, such as in “an Ancient Egyptian pharoah’s tomb”. This was what sparked the discussion to begin with.

    I finally told him, “It depends on where you mentally draw the parenthesis” in it, just like putting the parenthesis in a mathematical expression.
    D.A.W.

  • Stefan

    English has no genitive. We have a possessive form which is not a grammatical case!

Leave a comment: