I was thinking about what to do next in the Preposterous Apostrophes series when I started thinking about the neat fact that the genitive (the linguist’s fancy term for possessive) case marker ‘s is suffixed to the end of a phrase, not to the head of the phrase:

(1)a. The king of England’s fancy hairdo was not well-received.
(1)b. *The king’s of England fancy hairdo was not well-received.

This is a little unexpected given the behavior of some other English suffixes, such as the plural marker -s:

(2)a. *The king of Englands are not known for niceness.
(2)b. The kings of England are not known for niceness.

But then I started thinking about what happens when you apply both of these markers to a single phrase. Remember (as drilled into your head from kindergarten to twelfth grades, and possibly longer) that plural nouns ending in s have just the apostrophe as their genitive case marker, and plural nouns not ending in s have a genitive ‘s. This suggests that if you have a plural phrase, like the kings of England, its genitive form should be the kings of England’s:

(3) ?The kings of England’s wax seals are stored in the Tower of London.

But something seemed a little off about this to me. So I decided to check online for “the kings of England’s”, figuring that surely a fair number of people must have seen fit to comment about things possessed by multiple kings of England. But in fact there were only 4500 results for this phrase, compared to some 61000 for “of the kings of England” (this number is inflated somewhat by phrases like “Chronicle of the Kings of England”, a book title that cannot be aptly paraphrased as “The Kings of England’s Chronicle”, but most of results I saw were possessives).

At this point I looked at the first Google result for “the kings of England’s”, and lo and behold it was The Tensor, a fellow linguist, blogging about the fact that the kings of England’s struck him as off as well. In fact, it’s really quite striking how similar our thought patterns were on this. (Even down the fact that for both of us, the king of England is the best phrase available to make possessive – but that’s linguists for you.) A commenter on the earlier post noted that, sticking with the constitutional monarchy theme, members of Parliament’s didn’t sound as bad as kings of England’s. I agree with The Tensor that members of Parliament’s was a slight improvement, but Google doesn’t seem to bear out our opinion: “the members of Parliament” hits outnumber “the kings of England” hits 4:1, but “the members of Parliament’s” outnumbers “the kings of England’s” only 2:1 – not that this is a clear finding one way or the other.

Some sort of conflict with pluralization and ‘s is playing out here — things are a little different with “the king of England”. Let me first define two terms that with make this discussion much orthographically easier to follow: the s-genitive (forms like “the Pope’s ring”) and the of-genitive (forms like “the ring of the Pope”). Recall that for the kings of England, the of-genitive outnumbered the s-genitive 12:1. With the singular the king of England, the of-genitive outnumbers the s-genitive only 4:1. There definitely seems to be an effect of pluralization.

But (and this is the point where I put that first year’s worth of graduate study to use) why does the king of England also prefer the of-genitive? Catherine O’Connor and colleagues [fn. 1] have worked on the alternation between s-genitives and of-genitives and found that as the number of words in a possessor-phrase increases, it become more unwieldy to use the s-genitive (cf. the awkwardness of the sullen and angry lead singer’s microphone). Specifically, they found that phrases with three words are 4-10 times more likely to use the of-genitive than the s-genitive to form a possessive, and phrases with four or more words were 15-50 times more likely to do so. As the king of England is a four-word phrase, it is not surprising to see “of the king of England” preferred over “the king of England’s”, despite the awkward repetition of of. Likewise, this accounts for some of the reluctance to use the kings of England’s.

In the end, I don’t know what exactly all of this means yet; but it is the sort of thing that is suddenly becoming hip in linguistics (or perhaps I just think this because it’s what I do). The main reason that I bring it up is because it’s important to keep in mind that in some cases what feels right involves bending some other grammatical suggestions/rules (e.g., the suggestion that you shouldn’t have the same preposition twice in a row, as in of the king of England). You are probably a competent user of English, dear reader, and often you should trust your intuitions. I guess that’s my whole point with this blog — you don’t always need to check a reference book to find out how to use your language.

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fn. 1: I am struggling to find a reference to the paper in which this result is discussed, so if you find it, let me know. She discussed in it her class at the Linguistic Society of America’s summer institute this year, and I got the number cited here from her class’s slides.

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The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

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