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It seems that there is a group of mistaken prescriptivists who insist that you cannot use the ‘s possessive with inanimate objects. One argues that the ‘s possessive grants human qualities to the inanimate object that it surely does not deserve. This may sound familiar; I discussed a similar (if reversed) argument a few months ago that using that in a relative clause that refers to a person is somehow de-humanizing and surely at least highly indecorous, if not outright illiterate. Others just state as fact that inanimates and ‘s possessives are a Jet and a Shark; never the twain should meet. At first blush, the rule might seem reasonable:

(1a) I had the time of my life last weekend!
(1b) *I had my life’s time last weekend!

(2a) I spent the weekend painting the side of the house magenta!
(2b) *My wife has just informed me that I’m spending next weekend re-painting the house’s side white.

But I’m going to argue that the ungrammaticality of (1b) and (2b) is epiphenomenal. First, note that (1a)’s time of my life is an idiom. It’s rare that you can change the form of an idiom and retain its idiomatic meaning. For instance:

(3) *That new record album is the meow of the cat!

That’s nonsense, unless the album literally contained caterwauling. But if you switch in the cat’s meow, suddenly it’s comprehensible — if a bit dated. So (1b) doesn’t sound bad because it’s got an inanimate with ‘s; it sounds bad because you’ve botched the idiom. As for (2b), I agree it is bad, and it’s bad because it is an inanimate object possessing an inalienable part. But even that’s not always a problem. The extreme southwestern tip of Great Britain is called “Land’s End“, so-named at least back to 1769; the phrase itself has been used generally since at least 1400, according to the OED. Similarly, there’s a hotel called The Cliff’s Edge in Hawaii.

In general, aside from idiomatic avoidance and a few special situations, this rule is rubbish. The Gregg Reference Manual wants you to think that there is something wrong with saying the terminal’s lower level, or its edge, or leaf’s color but I can’t see it:

(4a) […] you see it’s just people trying to survive,” he said yesterday, sipping coffee in the terminal’s lower level […]
(4b) […] bring the hoe in a direction perpendicularly to its edge […] (from 1787, by the way)
(4c) Three substances contribute to a leaf’s color

Summary: In the case of inanimate possessors using ‘s, there’s historical usage of such phrases, there’re modern attestations, there’re idioms with it. There simply isn’t any evidence that there is or ever was a rule of English saying that inanimate objects cannot take an ‘s possessive.

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The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

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I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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