Submitted by marcelo2 on November 8, 2005

‘S (apostrophe+S) versus OF

Consider the example: There’s a teacher that has two groups and basically he always teaches both groups the same thing. One day he asks his students, “Can you give me one example of a car that has sirens?” In one group a student answers, “A policeman’s car has sirens.” In the other group he gets this answer, “The car of a policeman has sirens.” My question is: Is there a possible difference in meaning between both answers? I think they are perfect equivalent, but my English professor says that when you use “apostrophe + S” you always establish a relationship of possession and when you use “OF” it doesn’t necessarily happen. She also says that there’s always a difference in meaning, though it’s not always a striking one. She just didn’t explain what her explanation meant, that is, she didn’t give any example using this explanation in a context. She gave some examples such as: * a woman’s scent * the scent of a woman And tried to explain this possible difference without giving a sentence (context) in which they occur. Again, my question is, is there a difference between these two structures: * The car of a policeman has sirens. * A policeman’s car has sirens. Any help is appreciated. Thanks in advance, Marcelo

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@WW I would lump your examples Groups...Descriptions together as partitive/compositional.

As you may have guessed by now, this all arises when some non-native speaker innocently asks the question: so when can the genitive be used when it's not a person?

As you rightly point up, it is quite quirky:
A) "The British occupation of India"
B) "England's long occupation of India"
C) "The long English occupation of India" - almost sounds as if "long" modifies "English"

D) "The windscreen's wiper" - does the windscreen only have one wiper?
E) "A windscreen's wiper is made up of six components"

F) "The bar chart's most striking feature is ...."
G) "The most striking feature of the bar chart is...."

My comment on (F) would be if one persistently used genitives like this (instead of "of" ), the text as a whole could become too convoluted or dense; academic and professional English writing fairly seldom contains genitives not referring to people or proper names:
"the patient's blood pressure" - ok ;
"the blood pressure's sudden spike" -> the sudden spike in blood pressure.

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Damn, I was sure I had removed that 's'.

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Thanks you, jayles. I think we can just say 'of' describes a relationship between two nouns. As well as partitives and the others you've mentioned, most of the following, I think, only or mainly take the 'of' construction:

Groups - a pack of hounds, a gang of thieves, a crowd of tourists
Origin - Robin of Loxley, the men of Harlech
Measures - a pint of beer, a kilo of potatoes (maybe these are included in partitives)
Time expressions - the time of the incident, the day of her wedding, the age of reason
Nouns describing others - that idiot of a boy, a genius of a man
Position - the top of the page, the back of the bus, the end of the book (but the book's ending is OK)
Descriptions - a film of rare charm, an idea of sheer brilliance

And no doubt lots of others. With a bit of help from Oxford Dictionaries Online and Swan's Practical English Usage.

And then there are some oddities, some work best one way, some another:

'He's a ship's captain', but 'He's but a plane's captain' ???
'Start the car's engine' , but 'Shut the car's door ' ???

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@HS You see, I keep my posts undetailed and uninteresting, just so that WW may shine

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@WW

Once again I must compliment you on a detailed and interesting post.


:-))

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@WW agreed, "fossilized" was the wrong word.
You're absolutely spot on in saying that "when we took 'de' from French, we took on a lot more than possession and partitives", and this is the root of the question: which usages are not mirrored by the English inflected genitive.
So the short list of exceptions would now be: partitives, nouns of thinking or feeling, and the CaGEL fossils.

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@jayles - I don't really know why you consider "a sense of pride" and "a feeling of despair" hard to explain or fossilised expressions - to me 'of' is absolutely natural here, and I can't see any other way we might have said them . Apart from the genitive aspect, 'of ' is amost a dependent preposition for both nouns. At Netspeak, 44.8% of instances of 'sense' are followed by 'of', with 17.8 % for 'feeling', (this includes non-noun use). And it's the same story at Just The Word (from The British National Corpus).

Other European languages seem to deal with them in a similar way (or use a genitive inflection). French of course using 'de', where we got the 'of' construction from in the first place:

a sense of pride :
un sentiment de fierté - of
un sentido de orgullo- of
ein Gefühl von Stolz - of
poczucie dumy (Polish) - dumy is the genitive of duma
sensus superbiae (Latin) - genitive of superbia


a feeling of despair:
un sentiment de désespoir - of
un sentimiento de desesperación - of
ein Gefühl der Verzweiflung - genitive of die
uczucie rozpaczy (Polish) - genitive of rozpacz

We have lots of expressions like this with verbs of feeling and thinking: 'sense of' reminds me, of course, of sense nouns - 'a taste of', 'the smell of', 'the very sight of', etc

But then there are things like:

' an intimation of danger'
' the awareness of his presence'
' their perception of themselves'
' the consciousness of self and related issues'
' the sheer pleasure of learning'

and in books etc:

'The Joy of Sex'
'Fear of Flying'
'The Call of the Wild'

None of these would work with genitive 's' or a possessive pronoun, but work perfectly with 'of'. It looks as though, when we took 'de' from French, we took on a lot more than possession and partitives. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this genitive idea of using gentive for feelings and verbs of consciousness went back to the beginnings of language.

I'm (now, after a bit of googling) aware that the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language lists some expressions with 'of' as being fossilised or idiomatic - 'by dint of', 'in view of', 'in spite of', 'by way of' etc, but these seem to me to be one offs, whereas the rule for verbs of feeling and thinking is so general that I wouldn't consider them in the same vein.

Also, as I understand it, fossilised expressions are relatively fixed. But we can change these quite a lot:

a feeling of despair, hope, despondency etc (the following noun can be varied quite considerably)
feelings of ... (we can have a change in number)
a feeling of outright desparation (we can modify the noun with an adjective)
a feeling of despondency, not to mention of despair (coordination of nouns is possible)
this feeling of dispair (a change of determiner is possible)
I have a nasty feeling (the preposition can be ommited)

You can't do this with the expressions they list as fossilised at CaGEL (p616 - it's easy enough to find on the web). :)

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"a body of evidence",, "a can of beer", "a mass of documents" = partitives; hence we cannot use a genitive (not "a document's mass).

This leaves us with expressions like "a man of culture and sensitivity", "a part of speech", "the axis of rotation" ,, where we are faced with a faintly dated use of "of" to denote a quality or characteristic in a phrase which in modern English might equally be expressed either adjectivally or as a compound noun: "a cultured and sensitive man"; "a word class"; "the rotational axis", (but seldom, "the rotation's axis")

"a sense of pride", "a feeling of despair" seem hard to explain as other than fossilized expressions

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errata: "the lions' slaughter" -> not clear whether the lions died or they killed a lot of anmals

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A few more idiomatic items:
"the sweet smell of success" vs "success's sweet smell"
"the stench of failure" vs "failure's stench" (but: "failure's foul stench")
"the state of the nation" vs "the nation's state"
"a sense of pride", "a feeling of despair" .....

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Re 4) objective/subjective genitives: this really only comes into play if the verb-from-the-noun is possibly transitive; thus:
"Tom's death" -> die is intransitive therefore Tom is the do-er and he is dead.
"his sister's murder" -> did she die or was she murdered? Should be clear from the context, unless of course she killed someone and was then herself killed.
"the lions' slaughter" -> not clear whether the lions died or someone slaughtered them.
"the slaughter of the lions" -> prima facie suggests it is the lions who died
"the shaft's rotation" -> no distinction with ergative verbs
Thus as the genitive simply denotes some relationship, we have to pick up the meaning from the context.

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No hard and fast rule here, but as general guidelines I would suggest:
1) be wary of genitives to indicate composition, : "a book of leather" not "leather's book";

2) attributes seem to be more idiomatic: "a man of honour" not "honour's man", but "a woman's scent", "at death's door"; but again "he was awarded the title of President" not "the President's title"

3) use the adjective or compound noun where appropriate eg the presidential title, engine oil

4) be wary of objective genititves: "the love of music" not "music's love"; generally 'a woman's love" refers to a woman doing the loving, whereas 'the love of a woman' is more ambiguous.

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Eh! THere are a lot of awkward sentences in this thread!

The "car of the policeman" and "the leash of the dog" are both awkward, and unlikely to be used in fluent English (mine, at least). I would almost always choose "the police car" or "the policeman's car", and "the dog's leash".

I also think Avrom's sentence "the leash of the dog we found in the rain" is only very slightly ambiguous. Most native speakers would assume that it was the dog that was found, not the leash. If the leash had been found, you would leave the dog out of it and say "the leash we found in the rain".

However, the teacher is correct about "a woman's scent" versus "the scent of a woman". The first phrase might be understood to refer to her perfume or to her natural body scent, or indeed to refer to a more generic scent suggestive of women, not any particular woman. You'd have to go by the context on that one. The second phrase is definitely not referring to perfume.

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About Avrom and Chris's comments:
I think a dog can own a leash.
If I give a leash to my dog for his birthday, it'll be the dog's, not mine anymore.
The leash will belong to the dog.
Just because it's a dog it cannot own things?
lol

About Sigma's comment:
In my view what happens is the following:
"A policeman's car" is an exact equivalent for "The car of a policeman" and both suggest that it could be any car, not necessarily the one with sirens.
But in the context I think both of them are also perfect equivalents to "A policeman car", which represents the type of car.
A policeman car has sirens.
=
The car of a policeman has sirens.
=
A policema's car has sirens.

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This is more a matter of style, but I feel that in the first example (“A policeman’s car has sirens.”), the car is special and therefore a psuedo-pronoun and, in the example, an acutal policecar, and would, of course, have sirens. In the second one, I feel that it's just a car a police officer just happens to own and therefore wouldn't necessarily have sirens.

Again, that's mostly a matter of style to me.

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Chris: "For example: 'Chris's girlfriend is bi-polar' If I tell her I own her, I think she's gonna get a little bit grumpy with me."

I think that proves my point, actually.

"Chris's girlfriend" doesn't imply you own her, but "the girlfriend that belongs to Chris" does, and would probably get her very grumpy indeed.

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Yet another minor quibble:
Avrom... "The examples given earlier, especially 'the dog's leash', prove this: The dog does not posess the leash (presumably its master/mistress does)." and "'The leash that belongs to the dog we found in the rain' doesn't sound quite right to me, because 'belongs to' *does* suggest ownership."

Nitpicking, if you ask me, which I know you didn't. Possession and a relationship of ownership in an English sentence is the relationship between the words, not necessarily what the words represent.

For example: "Chris's girlfriend is bi-polar" If I tell her I own her, I think she's gonna get a little bit grumpy with me. Still, if I sell her, how much do you think I'll get?

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Yes, that's a fair point: "The leash of the dog that we found in the rain" is ambiguous, and you *can* express one of the two possible meanings with an apostrophe+s. I was thinking of the other meaning, but the example was perhaps awkward.

One more minor quibble: "The leash that belongs to the dog we found in the rain” doesn't sound quite right to me, because "belongs to" *does* suggest ownership.

Best,
Avrom

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About Avrom's comment:

Thanks a lot for posting!
You said:
"the leash of the dog that we found in the rain"
would be *very* hard to express using an apostrophe + s.

Well, but that's an ambiguous sentence, for it could mean that you've found either a dog or a leash in the rain (or train...?)!
So, it only justifies the use of "of" if you want to create such ambiguity.
I think it would be very hard to express both circumstances using “OF”
If you found a leash it would be better to use the possessive:
“The dog’s leash that we found in the rain”
And in case it was the dog I only see a solution by using a different structure:
“The leash that belongs to the dog we found in the rain”

But that’s another discussion...
At least in English you have the choice of using apostrophe + S. (Since it’s almost agreed that it means the same thing...)
In Portuguese the ambiguity would only disappear by using another structure instead of
"the leash of the dog that we found in the rain"
That is, you have no other choice than changing the whole structure if you want the person to understand what it was that you found in the rain (or train!).

Thanks again for your post! I appreciate it.

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"my English professor says that when you use “apostrophe + S” you always establish a relationship of possession and when you use “OF” it doesn’t necessarily happen."

I respectfully disagree with your English professor. "Apostrophe + S" does *not* always indicate possession (although it's described as "posessive", any more than "of" does. The examples given earlier, especially "the dog's leash", prove this: The dog does not posess the leash (presumably its master/mistress does).

I agree with Janet: There's no difference between these forms.

At least, there's no difference between the *meanings* of these forms. One is more flexible than the other:

"the leash of the dog that we found in the rain"

would be *very* hard to express using an apostrophe + s.

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Abou Janet's comment

Yeah, I do think that people TRY to see a difference and they try to explain it without a context, because once you use it in a context you see there's no difference at all...
"Not even a subtle difference."
I couldn't agree more.

Thanks for your comment.

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About Carrie's comment

I appreciate you comment but I find something intriguing...

If you use "a policeman's car" it could also mean any other car the policeman owns and not necessarily the "police car".
But I agree with you when you say that it's really unbearable to be talking to a person who argues about minor things like that.

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About GP's comments

I appreciate you comments, but I don't get it.
Imagine...
Situation 1
- What a beautiful dog! And that cat is also very cute! But, hey, I think they're in trouble.
- (Turning around to look at the animals) What?
- The dog's leash is hurting the cat.

Situation 2
- What a beautiful dog! And that cat is also very cute! But, hey, I think they're in trouble.
- (Turning around to look at the animals) What?
- The leash of the dog is hurting the cat.

I cannot see any emphasis either on the dog, nor on the leash. The only emphasis I can see is a person trying to let the owner of two animals be aware that they're in trouble.
But no difference at all between both sentences...

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I can see a connotative difference... When you say "the dog's leash", the emphasis is on the dog, where as in "the leash of the dog", the emphasis is on the leash, even though in both cases the subject is the same. The same is true to "a *woman*'s scent" vs "the *scent* of a woman" and "a *policeman*'s car" and "the *car* of a policeman", etc.

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If the difference between the two needed to be established, I guess you could say that "the car of a policeman" could be any car that the said policeman owns and not necessarily the "police car" that the phrase implies. However, that's just a matter of how analystic the listener is and how they interpret it. And really, who wants to be talking to someone who argues about minor things like that? But for the sake of the argument, that was my two cents.

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Okay, I will take a stab at this.

There is a school of linguistic thought that says "one form, one meaning." If there are 2 (or more) ways to say something, there HAS TO be a difference in meaning, however minor. This particular brick wall is one I beat my head in when studying Russian, much as you are now when studying English. It sounds to me like your English teacher believes this EVEN IF she cannot herself find the distinction in meaning between the two forms.

I don't buy it. I cannot think of even a subtle difference between "a policeman's car" and "the car of a policeman." I see no difference between "the dog's leash" and "the leash of the dog," or "the stew's flavor" and "the flavor of the stew," etc., etc.,

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