Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Phrasal Possessive

Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Phrasal Possessive January 6, 2014

Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Phrasal Possessive


We in English have an odd and useful tool: a possessive that can be appended to an entire phrase, rather than to just one word. Look at the following:


Il figlio del re d’Inghilterra (Italian)
Le fils du roi d’Angleterre (French)
Der Sohn des Koeniges von England (German)


In each case, the possessive applies to the noun alone. In the Romance languages, it must be marked by a prepositional phrase: The son of the king. In German, the possessive is typically marked twice, by the word order, and by our well-known s on masculine or neuter singular nouns. It’s how we form our possessives: we add an s, but unlike the Germans, we add it to all nouns: It’s women’s night at the Colonnade. The Germans can say, too, Des Koeniges Sohn, the king’s son, but that’s unusual, and for special emphasis.

What none of those languages can do is what we do all the time:


The King of England’s son.


Now, let’s stop and look at that. He isn’t England’s son, the Prince of Wales; he’s the king’s son. So why don’t we put the ending on the word King? That would seem logical. The fact is, that’s what we used to do:


The King’s son of England.


But that, you see, caused a little confusion. Notice the difference:


The man on the street’s wife

The man’s wife on the street


That won’t do. So we have a phrasal possessive. But one shouldn’t be too reckless about using it:


The fellow I saw yesterday at the Burger King’s Cadillac


Best then to use an adjectival phrase to show possession:


The Cadillac belonging to the fellow I saw yesterday at the Burger King.


What he was doing with a Cadillac at the Burger King, I’ll never know.

Another interesting thing about the phrasal possessive is that it’s given an assist by orthography. We have the apostrophe to signal possession. That’s unusual. The apostrophe in other languages, and for other uses in English, almost always signals that something is missing: can’t, qu’est-que-c’est?, all’ insula. But nothing is missing in the phrasal possessive. It’s just the possessive -s stuck onto a phrase, as it had been stuck onto nouns. There was no more reason, historically, to put an apostrophe there for possession than there was to put one there for plurals. We could, in fact, easily have made the reverse decision, using the apostrophe for plurals and the plain consonant for possessives. But the apostrophe does make things clear to the eye, reading. We see it – we can’t miss it. We register it: “It’s possessive!” It doesn’t work nearly so well, though, when we are speaking. You can’t hear the darned thing, after all.

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