Possessive noun

Definition of Possessive noun

It can get complicated at times explaining the differences between classifications of nouns and their various subtleties. This is not one of those times: possessive nouns are relatively straightforward.

What is a possessive noun?

You take a normal nounproper or common, abstract or concrete – and you add an apostrophe, flanked by the letter s, and your Bob’s niece or nephew.

This form shows a connection between one item and another, often a relationship of belonging: for example, Einstein’s theorem or Ian Botham’s cricket bat.

The origins of this procedure lie in the Germanic grammar of Old English. As still exists in German and other languages, the genitive case shows when one noun has exerted some influence on another – usually showing some form of ownership in a loose sense: for example, das Auto des Mannes (the man’s car) shows that same -es ending that the Anglo-Saxons used.

However, the tide of cases and their endings has ebbed away from the English shores a long time ago, leaving this relic on the beach.

The apostrophe was introduced much later in the history of English to show that the e in es was no longer pronounced fully by standing in for the missing e.

Occasionally, a noun phrase that makes perfect sense to an English speaker might seem a little strange when it becomes a possessive noun. For example, when you read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mitre, you might be tempted to think it was more logical to place the apostrophe after the archbishop, as the mitre does not belong to the city of Canterbury.

However, that would sound very strange to Anglophonic ears. Even a father-in-law, who would find himself pluralised among fathers-in-law, might still ride his daughter-in-law’s motorbike.

There are a couple of other quirks to consider. Some grammarians are unhappy with the possessive apostrophe being used with inanimate objects such as a speech with the rationale that objects cannot own items; if they read about ‘the speech’s effect on the crowd’, they might prefer ‘the effect of the speech’.

Another quirk reflects the fact that Old Father Time owns us all. If somewhere takes three hours to get there by car, we can say that it is three hours’ drive; perhaps we need give two days’ notice before we can leave.

Examples of possessive nouns

A few examples of what a possessive noun is.

Children’s toys Two weeks’ holiday
My mother-in-law’s car China’s strategic defence policy