Possessive Nouns - When To Use The Apostrophe

Published: 29th September 2009
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One of the oldest traits that makes man human --and something that we can all relate to-- is 'possession.'

While animals are fiercely territorial, humans are fiercely possessive. We compete so that we can win something, be that an asset or some abstraction such as fame and glory. In fact, Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse in Inequality #2 affirms that, "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying "This is mine," and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society."

So, as we say in the vernacular, "possession is nine tenths of the law," meaning that very little comes between us and what we own. And this very human trait is reflected in language.

Nouns that call for an apostrophe:

Lady's existence
Children's crossing
Doctor's patient
Grant's Tomb
Tom's arm
The wolf's leg
Angel's breath
God's tribunal

Nothing but the apostrophe comes between the possessing agent and the thing possessed. Furthermore, notice that the agents are people, animals, and sentient beings.

Nouns that call for the preposition 'of':

The life and soul of the party
The root of all evils
The shadow of your smile
The Red Badge of Courage
The windows of the soul

When we ascribe possession to animate and inanimate beings that aren't endowed with either mind attributes (thinking, reasoning, cognition), or feelings and emotions, then the possession is expressed with the preposition 'of.'

In fiction
When a writer intends to deprecate a character, this is done by denying the apostrophe to the character, which is tantamount to denying that the character has human-like qualities. We can see this in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre:

"Silence!" ejaculated a voice; not that of Miss Miller, but one of the upper teachers, a little dark personage, smartly dressed, but of somewhat morose aspect..."

But to humanize the hero:

"Whose house is it?"
"Mr. Rochester's."

Notice the intent to dehumanize in the following sentence:

Nurse Ratchet, the chief nurse of the asylum, called the names of the inmates.

In the title of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hyde, we can see that the possessive is shown with the preposition 'of.' Again, one can see that the writer is attempting to dehumanize and to demonize both characters, as they will resemble alien beings rather humans.

If we rearrange the title to read: Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hyde's Strange Case, would convey nearly the same meaning, yet we can argue that the author's intention was to deny the use of the apostrophe to non-human characters.

Again, notice the use of the preposition 'of' in the same novel: "That child of hell had nothing human; nothing lived in him but fear and hatred."

1. Restrict the use apostrophes to signify possession by humans, animals, and sentient beings.
2. Use the preposition 'of' to signify possession by both animate and inanimate things, and non-sentient nouns.
3. Although the above distinctions aren't universally accepted by writers, grammarians, and stylists, their use is prevailing in both fiction and non-fiction writing. The accepted norm is that the writers should be consistent in their use of the apostrophe to indicate possession.
4. Traditionalists don't make the above distinctions.

Retired. Former investment banker, Columbia University-educated, Vietnam Vet (67-68).
For the writing techniques I use, see Mary Duffy's e-book: Sentence Openers.
To read my book reviews of the Classics visit my blog: Writing To Live

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