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Interchangeability of possessive “s” and “of”

Since ‘of’ is possessive, is writing ‘the Ark of the Covenant’, ‘Book of Ezekiel’, ‘Robin of Locksley’ and ‘Joan of Arc’ respectively as ‘the Covenant’s Ark’, ‘Ezekiel’s Book’, ‘Locksley’s Robin’ and ‘Arc’s Joan’ correct? If not, why?

  • November 23, 2011
  • Posted by sigurd
  • Filed in Grammar

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The word 'of' can indicate origin or position as well as possessive. But genitive 's 'denotes property or possession' (Joseph Priestley - The Grammar 1798)

Robin of Loxley and Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) came from those places, they weren't owned by them, probably something to do with the French 'de' meaning both 'of' and 'from', and which also has several other functions.

Similarly the Ark of the Covenant was the chest where the Covenant lay, the chest didn't belong to the Covenant.The Book of Ezekiel is more difficult to explain, perhaps, as we can have St. Matthew's Gospel etc. Perhaps somebody else could help out there.

'Primary sense of ['of'] in O.E. was still "away," but shifted in M.E. with use of the word to translate L. de, ex, and especially O.Fr. de, which had come to be the substitute for the genitive case.' - Online Etymology Dictionary.

But apart from anything else it would just sound unidiomatic.

Warsaw Will November 23, 2011, 5:25am

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Thank you for answering, but I’m not entirely convinced ‘’s’ only denotes possession. I think it can also denote association.

E.g., ‘Though Godfrey’s friend, Liam isn’t owned by Godfrey’ and ‘The town’s hero Jack, though not town property, was praised by the townsfolk’.

sigurd November 23, 2011, 8:14am

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I see your point.
Perhaps it's because some phrases just don't sound right.
London's mayor means the same as the mayor of London, but people tend to use the latter form.
Arc's Joan just doesn't sound right, perhaps because everyone is so used to the other form.

Hairy Scot November 23, 2011, 8:54am

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The -'s ending in English is leftover of the Anglo-Saxon genitiv case and in Modern English is only used to show possession in byspels like John's car.

"Of" is a preposition that has many uses ... "walls of wood" does not mean that the walls belong to the wood, it just shows a relationship between the two. Therefore, Joan of Arc does not mean that Joan belongs to Arc, it's just showing "a" relationship between the two but it's not a possessiv one so therefore one doesn't write "Arc's Joan".

AnWulf November 23, 2011, 11:25am

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@Sigurd - I too see your point, and part of it is no doubt, as HairyScot said, what we are used to hearing. But I think we also perhaps have to broaden our ideas of possession. Note Priestley said Property OR Possession; he obviously didn't think they were the same thing. Friends, ideas, sense of humour etc I would accept as possession, even though we don't own them. My dictionary includes under 'have' - 'to show a particular relationship', which I think covers friends etc., and grammatically 'have' works here as 'have' for possession.

But I would discount standard descriptions of derivation - I admit the mayor of Loxley might have said, 'And now, Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome Loxley's very own Robin Hood', but we wouldn't factually describe him as Loxley's Robin. And I don't think Jack would be normally described as (for example), Sheffield's Jack, even though he was the town's hero. It only works in certain contexts.

As for your other example,the Book of Ezekiel is, I presume, about Ezekiel,not by Ezekiel, so absolutely no possession there.

And as Anwulf has said, 'of' has all sorts of other functions, for example, composition. My dictionary lists 13 functions of 'of', only with the first of which -'belonging to somebody; relating to somebody' would you be able, I think, to use genitive 's.

Other examples might include: a bottle of wine, a crowd of people, the fourth of July, criticism of the police etc, etc

Warsaw Will November 24, 2011, 6:35am

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Just to add that this wider interpretation of possession is common in ESL/EFL circles and I think linguistics and grammar circles:

Warsaw Will November 24, 2011, 7:17am

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Apostrophe-s is used for things other than possession.

Caesar's murders - object genitive (ie, someone murdered Caesar)
men's shirts - genitive of purpose (shirts for men)
Terry Pratchett's latest book - genitive of origin (the latest book by Pratchett)
a year's wages - descriptive or classifying genitive

goofy November 24, 2011, 8:06am

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Should be "Caesar's murderers".
Caesar did not murder anyone.

Hairy Scot November 24, 2011, 8:24am

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@Warsaw Will
As Hairy Scot pointed out in another post, doesn't it burn you when someone asks a question and then proceeds to gainsay your answer?

Hairy Scot November 24, 2011, 8:26am

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Actually I meant to write "Caesar's murder"

goofy November 24, 2011, 8:26am

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I went OED for this, but I'm a few days late, but here's there two cents....

1.Of motion, direction, distance.
a. Indicating the thing, place, or direction from which something goes, comes, or is driven or moved: from, away from, out of. Now regional exc. as off

b. Indicating the place or source from which action, (as shooting, calling, writing) is directed: from.

III. Of origin or source. Indicating the thing, place, or person from which or whom something originates, comes, or is acquired or sought.

etc. mostly obsolete, but I think everyone else already got that point across...

wirednweird November 24, 2011, 3:46pm

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oh dear sweet Christ, *their

wirednweird November 24, 2011, 3:47pm

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I very much appreciate all the answers.

I know now ‘possession’’s meaning is broader in the linguistic sense and can denote association distinct from property. However, I still don’t see how ‘the Covenant’s Ark’, ‘Ezekiel’s Book’, ‘Loxley’s Robin’ or ‘Arc’s Joan’ are wrong.

Containing the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) tablets, not only was the Ark closely associated (=linguistic possession) with the Covenant, the agreement between God and His people, but the Ark was also literally the Covenant’s property.

Ezekiel’s Book, describing his Babylonian capticity, was initially written by the priest prophet Ezekiel.

Loxley’s townsman and Arc’s townswoman by birth and upbringing, the famous Robin and Joan hailed respectively from Loxley and Arc and were so associated(=linguistic possession).

sigurd November 24, 2011, 11:20pm

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I meant ‘[...] his Babylonian captivity [...]’.

sigurd November 24, 2011, 11:23pm

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Another correction: ‘A Loxley’s townsman and an Arc’s townswoman, [...]’.

sigurd November 25, 2011, 1:44am

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@goofy - Point taken, although I'd include 'Terry Pratchett's latest book' as possession - Terry Pratchett has a new book out'. But I don't think that really makes any difference to the examples Sigurd gives.

@New Reader - This is a forum to discuss disputes, of course people disagree. And to gainsay is not to disprove. But most of the regulars here, even the ones I disagree most profoundly with, tend to do argue their case constructively. And do their homework first! Still, you taught me a new (to me - BrE) meaning of burn.

@sigurd - I'm not saying they're wrong, but do you really think they sound natural? And when you added the indefinite article in that last comment, they got a whole lot more unnatural to my ear.

Warsaw Will November 25, 2011, 5:02am

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Sorry, obviously a typo - tend to argue - but I better correct it before New Reader jumps in.

Warsaw Will November 25, 2011, 5:05am

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@Warsaw Will
I was not trying to be smart or nasty and I do appreciate the object of the forum.
I just think it strange that someone asks for an opinion and then expresses doubt about the first answer he/she receives.

Hairy Scot November 25, 2011, 5:37am

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@Warsaw Will
@New Reader
Dunno if I would use burn in that context.
I'd probably say "it pisses me off", or maybe even "it offpisses me".

Hairy Scot November 25, 2011, 5:44am

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@New Reader
Sigurd's original question actually invites discussion.
Had the question been phrased in a manner which suggested that he/she was merely seeking information then perhaps you would have a point.

Hairy Scot November 25, 2011, 11:09am

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To me, they sound natural. In British English, I’ve heard people say, ‘[town/city/area name]’s [person]’ when association is meant, especially as a way to differentiate the person mentioned from other familiar namesakes. E.g., ‘Do you remember Yorkshire’s Laura?’ and ‘I just saw Gloucestershire’s Jamie at the pub.’

However, I just realized, because Loxley still very much exists and may have many Robins, using ‘Robin of Loxley’ instead of ‘Loxley’s Robin’ is useful in differentiating Loxley’s historic Robin from other Robins.

Likewise, ‘Joan of Arc’ is probably more useful when referring to the historic one. Oh, and it turns out (just checked) Joan of Arc was born in Domrémy, not Arc. Apparently, she got her surname, d'Arc, from her father.

sigurd November 25, 2011, 3:45pm

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Goofy's examples and descriptions all come from the work of a certain Fries, quoted in MWDEU (p 474). There are couple of things I find interesting here:

nearly all the examples sound more natural to me than the equivalents with (periphrastic) of'', (or 'for' in the case of genitive of purpose)

there are absolutely no examples of the apostrophe being used to denote somebody's derivation. (But I accept that sometimes the place concerned will use it to claim someone as their own)

What is disappointing is that MDWEU talks about periphrastic 'of', but nowhere can I find a list of preferred uses for this. Any ideas, Goofy?

Just for fun I did some googling:

TheCovenant's Ark - You might have some support on this one, Sigurd, especially on religious websites
Ezekiel's Book - ditto, and ditto
Loxley's Robin - 4 hits - but they all turn out to be for a racehorse called 'Loxley's Robin Hood'
Arc's Joan - the only references seem to be to this discussion.

There's an interesting paper on the development of the genitive in English (pdf) from Linguistics-online. Looks right up AnWulf's street. See section 2.2. Just google - history of the genitive

Warsaw Will November 25, 2011, 8:04pm

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Yes     No