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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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"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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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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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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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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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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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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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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