Monday, 29 June 2015

Discussions--Series 10--ELT Professionals Around the World

Please go to Post 68 and then come back here. Thank you.

Discussions—Series Ten

Topic 47
Can we use a possessive with non-living objects - e.g., 'table's legs'? Manager's Choice
Dr Aniruddha Burmon Teacher Trainer at University BT & Evening College

English Teacher & CEO at Teacher Bia - Aulas de Inglês Online
For things, ideas, etc, we 'normally' (it's colloquial) use OF, e.g. the cover of the book, the owner of the restaurant, the roof of the garage.

I would use the 's with inanimate objects.

Professor at Wszechnica Polska
My researched material shows that 'table's legs' is not really common, but all the non-living organisations (like BBC) always have the ' (e.g. the BBC"s Andrew Harding), countries (like France, America, etc) also always take the 's (America's suffragettes, France's action, etc). 'Table's legs' seems to be unacceptable, even if some liberal young might attempt to use it online, because it goes back to the old rule and tradition of correct usage, which still matter to the senior educated.

English for business and special purposes at KIELFA
Although we do use the possessive with countries and organisations, perhaps because they are made up of people, we would say, for example, either table legs or legs of the table, and window frame or frame of the window when referring to inanimate objects.

Of, ’s and ‘inalienability’ : personal and impersonal, alienability and inalienability 

There are different levels to this discussion – the “first step”, “the second step” and “the real meanings/uses”. 

a) First step 
List A 
John’s leg 
the man’s leg 
the dog’s leg 
the lamb’s leg 
the bird’s nest 
*the table’s leg 
*the chair’s leg 
*the book’s cover 
*the school’s students 

List B 
*the leg of John 
the leg of the man 
the leg of the dog 
the leg of the lamb 
the nest of the bird 
the leg of the table 
the leg of the chair 
the cover of the book 
the students of the school 

List C 
*the John leg 
*the man leg 
*the dog leg 
the lamb leg 
*the bird nest 
the table leg 
the chair leg 
the book cover 
the school students 

At the basic, core meaning level, everything asterixed is “incorrect” – though I stress here at the basic level. Probably, however, every item in the lists is actually possible, given the right context. 

The core difference between list A and list B is : 

’s/s’ is used for living and thinking ‘owners’ (animates). 

OF can be used with any type of prepositional object except by personal names.
 Nelson B., Judith M. and 5 others like this

b) The Second Step : Names and personality/personalisation 

“OF can be used with any type of prepositional object except by personal names.” 

What does this say about the difference between ’s and OF? The key is the leg of John. How important is your name to you? If you do not have your name, who are you? If you don’t have a name – well, you are nobody. Your name is probably the most personal thing you have, the thing that identifies you and that other people associate with you. The word "personal" is the key. Living/thinking things have personality, while non-living/non-thinking things have no personality – they are impersonal. Because John is a personal name, it is impossible and illogical to say "the leg of John" in everyday English. 

Think of the difference between "the man’s leg" and "the leg of the man". In what contexts would you normally use one or the other? "The man’s leg" is most commonly used in situations where the man as a human being is uppermost in the context, while "the leg of the man" is best in situations where the man is being treated as almost non-human (for example a body in a dissection room for an anatomy class, or in a very serious car accident, such as when a car travelling at 200 kilometres per hour hits a tree or something similar; bodies come apart – the people who have to ‘pick up the pieces’ have to be impersonal). This is similar for "the dog’s leg" and "the leg of a dog" – the first is probably someone’s pet, and the second just some dog. 

As tables, chairs and so on are completely impersonal, then it is not normal to use ’s with such words. BUT - for example, In the Disneyworld animated film ‘Beauty and the Beast’ an important set of characters is the furniture and similar objects, which are people turned into things by a magic spell. Therefore, the furniture (etc.) can think, speak and feel. In such a world – a fantasy world – it is perfectly correct and proper to say that the chair was angry, stood up, and walked over and kicked the table’s leg. The furniture has personality, and so ’s can be used.
nilgun I., Judith M. and 2 others like this

c) The real meanings/uses 

Both list A and list B are different from list C, in that this latter shows an inalienable relationship between the first noun and the second. Think of a table leg. Where do you find table legs? Under table tops. Do you call a man’s leg a ‘man leg’? Why not? How integral are the legs to our idea of a table? If you take away the legs from a table, what do you have left? A piece of wood on the floor. In contrast, if a man loses his legs, he is still a man. 

The important thing to keep in mind here is that different grammatical/syntactic structures have different semantic forces – they mean different things. This is all too clear in the following examples: 

a) The President and his ‘floozy’ did certain things in the President’s office that brought disrepute on the office of the President in the eyes of his people. 

b) B......! I’ve stubbed my toe against the leg of the table! 

c) The workman came in carrying what looked like a table leg. 

d) The chair stood up, swore, then walked over and kicked the table’s leg. 

The President’s office is his personal work room, while the office of the President is the job, the role, the responsibility which forms part of the impersonal position of President. OF shows that the prepositional subject (the office) is a part of the prepositional object (the role of President). In b), the leg is that part of the table the toe got stubbed against, while in c) the leg is what can only be described as the type of leg only found on a table, just like a door handle is a handle only found on a door, a bottle top is a top only found on bottles, a coke bottle is a bottle made for putting coke in, and so on. In b) and c), the leg is impersonal – it is a thing that is part of a table. On the other hand, d) can only be used in a story world where chairs and tables are alive and have personality.

OF gains this impersonal use from its main use of showing "parts of" (the tail of the dog is a part of the dog, a piece of cheese - the piece is part of the cheese). "Parts of" ni itself is an impersonal concept. Therefore, OF is an impersonal word that can be used to ‘depersonalise’ a situation, as in medical language: 

e) As we make the first incision in the leg of the man, we note that the epidermis... 

’S, on the other hand, ‘personalises’ such a situation: 

f). The man’s leg jerked when the doctor tapped the pressure point. 

Having neither OF nor ’s (e.g. the door handle) shows that the two items are integrally associated one to the other - "inalienable", whereas both OF and 's/s' show that the object spoken about is "alienable) - either that part of the object can be detached, but the object itself still retains its identity (a legless man is still a man, the cheese is still cheese even if a part is taken out of it). 

Pairs such as "the newspaper's editor" and "the editor of the newspaper" divide according to the concept of "personal" and "impersonal" - the "newspaper's editor" is the editor not so much of the paper itself, but the organisation made of people withoutn which the newspaper can never exist. 


's/s' : shows personal~personalised, alienable possession - most typically for animate (can think and feel) possessors 

of : shows part of, i.e. impersonal alienable possession - most typically things that are inanimate (can't think or feel). 

"zero" (e.g. a bottle top) : inalienable posession - the "possessed" cannot be thought of separately from the "possessor"

Prrofessor English worked in a Libyan University till Aug. 2012

i agree with Debris 100%. normaly the rules of the grammar reads that the posessive case can
be used with 
living things,names of personified objects-nature's laws; 
nouns denoting time space or weight-week's holiday,stone's throw; 
nouns denoting a trade,profession or school, or church,relationship- this is st. peter's. 
as a general rule the possesive case is used to denote possession or ownership.
 Dr Aniruddha B. likes this

Teacher Trainer at University BT & Evening College
The question I raised has connection with OXFORD LEARNER'S GRAMMAR AND COMPOSITION, Book 3 - the phrases were 'the umbrella's colour, the street's name, the engine's noise, the light's brightness, the flower's beauty, the jet plane's size and China's Great Wall'. The problem is keeping learners updated about the latest changes.

The important things to keep in mind are : 

1) these are not "latest changes" - these are things that it has always been possible to say in English - for well over a thousand years. One can even say that a thousand years ago the "'s" (which was written -es or -s - as well as other possibilities depending on type of noun [some other possibilities only appear in the personal pronouns now - my/mine, thy/thine, her, our, your, their] was much much more commonly used than now. 

The "remnants" of this is the use of 's with time words, as one example, e.g. in one week's time. Note that the "time" is not "part" of the week. The time equals the week - the time is the week. This is why "of" can't be used. "Of" shows "parts of". "A stone's throw" - the throw is not part of the stone, it is the distance (in length) covered by the stone when thrown, just as a week's time is the duration (in length) of a week. 

2) the difference is "personalisation" vs "impersonalisation". 's shows that the object is being personalised (in having personality in its own right, like the man's hat, the dog's bowl, or in being given personality - e.g. in poetry, fantasy, or similar literature). "of" shows an impersonal relationship - the House of Versaci, for example, is not Versaci's house - which is the Versaci family's dweilling/residence; it is the company/organisation that was set up by the late Mr Versaci. The Book of John is of the same type - it is not "John's book", but rather that book of the Bible that we refer to with reference to John. 

The difference, like so many things dealing with language, be it grammar (simple vs continuous), vocabulary (must vs have to), or whatever, is decided by in part by the psychology of the context and/or the speaker, and therefore there is no hard and fast "black or white" ruling. 

And like all such distinctions, it is an evolutionary learning process - the student in becoming more proficient in English absorbs the distinctions. Our job as teachers is to help the students do that more efficiently.
 Judith M. likes this

English teacher at Bill's Home-tutorship Service
The leg of lamb for me, please. Can I have the chicken leg?
Rod M. likes this

And - to walk down childhood's lane : we can imagine the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk coming home of a typical evening, and asking his wife: 

"Fee fo hum, yummy-yum, 
What a smell for my tummy-tum. 
A nice leg of Englishman, 
Done to turn and where's me rum?" 

Or - less colourfully - "What a nice leg of man, love. You've really done yourself proud."

Operations Leader: Leveraging connections between seemingly diverse events, ensuring continual forward progress.
Rod --- you know I love & respect you man.....but could you give me the Cliff Notes' version of that please ? :-) PLEASE take the time & write that grammar book.....

I should take time ... if my work and family would ever leave me time ... 

The summary of 's nd of, you mean? How to summarise a whole philosophy, in a way, is the task.

's is used 
(1) by living things that can move and think (people, animals, fish, insects, birds - but not trees, grass, etc.) - these have personality. 
(2) by objects that are given personality or personalised (the school's students, the book's cover, the table's leg [in stories where the table is alive and can think/move, etc.). 
(3) in certain phrases such as those mentioned by Rathman where the object possessed (a week's time, a stone's throw) represents the length (duration/distance) represented by the "possessor" - but is not in itself part of the possessor. (Note that St Peter's refers to the person/saint Peter - St Peter's Church) 

"of" is used 
(1) to show that something is part of something else (a bottle of beer - the amount of beer in the bottle is a part of the beer that was in the vat - or in the world for that matter; the end of the week - the end of the week is part of the week) 
(2) impersonal possession / impersonalised possession (the office of the president/priest/pope etc - the office is not the working room, but the role that is part of the job represented by the term president/priest/pope; the tail of the dog - this is both a part of the dog as well as a "possession" of the dog) 

"of" in the second use tends to be more common in formal/official/technical (etc.) writing, because it is more impersonal - and formal/offical/technical language very strongly tends to by impersonal. 

When neither are used (a beer bottle, a table leg, a mountain top), then the relationship is that the main noun (bottle, leg, top) has a unique reference which is specified by the other noun (beer, table, mountain). This unique reference is in linguistic terms often termed "inalienable possession" - the main noun has no independent being without the reference to the other noun. 

A beer bottle is different from a coke bottle, from a wine bottle, and so on. Compare a bottle of beer - (1) the beer does not have to be in a beer bottle; it can be in a plastic bootle, a wine bottle - any type of bottle. A bottle of beer is the amount of beer that fits in a bottle, while a beer bottle is a bottle made specifically to hold beer.

English teacher at Bill's Home-tutorship Service
The bottle is not important; a full beer is.

Or pint glass. A pint of beer - with a good head of froth.

English teacher at Bill's Home-tutorship Service
Hey Rod, you are the wordsmith! In America, we would say suds, not froth. But, I like that word. On a visit to an out-of-the-way place in Australia, I asked for a pitcher of beer at the bar, and the guy said, "What?" I repeated and he still didn't know what I wanted. So, a waitress passed by with a tray of empties, I grabbed one and said, "This!" The barman said, "Ah!. You want a mug of beer!" It was a big mug and it worked! Language is beautiful, I refuse to be a pre/pro-scriptionist; too many exceptions to the rules. Grammar is leaky.

For us (I'm Australian) - suds are what soap gives when you rub it a lot with some water. Froth or foam is what is on beer, in the sea, and so on.

A pint, a jug, a schooner, a pot, a middy and so on - different words for different sizes of beer glass; Mug is an interesting one though, it must have been really out of the way.

English teacher at Bill's Home-tutorship Service
You should think that I haven't drank my share of beer, since the only expression that I'm familiar with is pint which is about 473 ml in the U.S. I'll do some research. Thanks, bill

ESL Teacher for Native Russians
Hmmm .... The thread has gone amuk. Dr. Anirhudda (sic!). There is one way that the posessive can be used as you stated: "This table's legs [or "These tables' legs . . . ."] are uneven (broken, ugly, cheap, whatever). I don't know why anyone did not come up with this one here of course, you are talking about a specific table or a group of tables as opposed to others!
 Rod M. likes this

teacher of English and Russian
Oh, I see it takes some time to understand English of English-speaking people from different countries and continents :-)

For 's vs of, there is actually no difference between usages according to English speaking country/continent; they are the same for all speakers of standard English regardless of where they come from.

I meant using of names for different things, such as froth or suds, or for different sizes of beer glass.

Ah, I see - well , that is true for all languages. It's not an English thing specifically. It's the same problem for us English speakers learning French, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, German, etc etc etc. It is part of the beauty of language - the variety that exists within any language, even among "highly educated" speakers.

Yes, you are right. There is in my native Russian language, too. We also have some dialects. I like your detailed explanation of possessive for inanimate objects. Thanks a lot.

IT Technician
Yes, native English speakers do it all the time; we add a "z" sound at the end of the name of the thing that is doing the possessing.

Head of English Faculty T.Adewumi International College, Nigeria.

Personally I'd prefer table legs to "table's legs"... if usage is the only issue the possessive is o.k. but strictly speaking ,grammatically, its probably incorrect... innit!

English teacher at Bill's Home-tutorship Service
Animated tables in a cartoon. Yeah, I know, that's a special case of personification. Really though, it would be nice if prescriptionists would allow for the reality of descriptionists. Yes, often grammar and punctuation is important, however, often it doesn't matter at all.

Volunteer, Assistant English as Second Language (ESL) at Refugee Women's Alliance (ReWA)
Well, in answer to your question these are actually called "table legs", much like 'shirt buttons' and 'jeans' pockets'! In English, in animate objects are neuter so there is really no need for an expletive possessive or prefix, but you can feel free to experiment. There are irregular cases such as "Ladies Room" or "Boys Town", but I think you get the general idea...

Independent E-Learning Professional
To add to what you've written: 

"a xxxx leg" is a type of leg; it does not indicate possession. For me, it functions as an adjective. 

It's true that we don't say "a man leg" but we do say "a male leg" or "a human leg" to specify a type of leg. 

"xxxx's leg" belongs to xxxx 

And it's not only the case that it's used, as you wrote: 

"(1) by living things that can move and think (people, animals, fish, insects, birds - but not trees, grass, etc.) - these have personality. 
(2) by objects that are given personality or personalised (the school's students, the book's cover, the table's leg [in stories where the table is alive and can think/move, etc.)." 

It can also be used by objects that are not personalised. In an antique shop, someone might say, "I'm not going to buy that dining suite. I think one of the table's legs isn't genuine." Or an example Google found for me, "We expect people kicking the table to miss the table's leg more often than they normally would." 

I'm afraid your: 
"(3) in certain phrases such as those mentioned by Rathman where the object possessed (a week's time, a stone's throw) represents the length (duration/distance) represented by the "possessor" - but is not in itself part of the possessor. (....) " 

doesn't satisfy me either as an explanation - though I don't have a better one. I just don't get a feeling of "possession". Maybe I haven't read enough old English. 

I agree with what you write about "of".
Rod M. likes this

Head of English Faculty T.Adewumi International College, Nigeria.
Glenys. Good point but I still would not use table's leg. I understand that the apostrophe signifies possession but a table (adj.) leg is in effect the same as a leg which belongs to a table... and is probably grammatically correct. By the same token it is also better than "the leg of the table"... Luther seems to have explained things expertly.

Director of Studies at Cactus Language Training
@ Glennys

a) <<It's true that we don't say "a man leg" but we do say "a male leg" or "a human leg" to specify a type of leg.>> - because "male" and "human" are adjectives that can also be nouns (or - as some linguists/grammarians would say - the adjectival form coincides with the nominal form).

With reference to what you say in reference to "adjective" for "a(n) XXX leg". Different linguistic traditions handle these in different ways, either as the "lay grammarian's" "a noun used as an adjective", or "a noun with adjectival status" (really says the same thing), or the "grammarian/linguist" "nouns that act as modifiers", "attributive nouns", "noun adjuncts", "inalienable possessives", etc.

What shows that the nouns/verbs in these constructions are not adjectives is that they can't be predicates:

"This is a red car" > "This car is red"

"This is a table leg" - cannot become "This leg is a table".
"This is a weigh bridge" - cannot become "This bridge is weigh"

The reason is tied up in the alternative linguistic term "inalienable possession". The link between the modifying noun and the modified noun is so tight; the last cannot exist without reference to the first. Therefore, such noun modifiers can't appear away from the noun.

Note that 's words can:

"This is John's leg" > "This leg is John's"
"This is my book" > "These book is mine"

This is one reason why in certain grammar/linguistic traditions possessives/genitives are called possessive adjectives.

b) <<It can also be used by objects that are not personalised. In an antique shop, someone might say, "I'm not going to buy that dining suite. I think one of the table's legs isn't genuine." Or an example Google found for me, "We expect people kicking the table to miss the table's leg more often than they normally would.">>

This is the beauty of taking a functional/cognitive/psycho-linguistic point of view - and also keeping a feel on the "impersonal"-"personal" dichotomy. "Impersonal"-"personal" depends on psychological aspects more that real-life aspects - though the psychological aspects are ultimately based on real-life.

Another way of describing the relationship that avoids the linguistic pair "impersonal"-"personal" would be "characterless-characterful", i.e. "impersonal/characterless" vs "persona/characterful" - or another would be "cold feelings" vs "warm feelings", "neutrality" vs "non-neutrality" - the linguistic terms "impersonal" and "personal" cover a range like this.

c) <<(3) in certain phrases such as those mentioned by Rathman where the object possessed (a week's time, a stone's throw) represents the length (duration/distance) represented by the "possessor" - but is not in itself part of the possessor. (....) >>

The value of "...." (“possessor”) - to show that the word being used is either being used in a special way, or in a way that is not to be read literally, or a word “invented” for the meaning the writer wants to express, etc.

From the structural point of view, in "a week's time" - week is grammatically the "possessor", and "time" is "the possessed". Alternatively - "week's" is a genitive modifier, and "time" is the noun defined by the modifier.

Why the genitive/possessive? Because the time/distance/length/duration is that which "belongs" to the modifier. Grammatical possession is not the same as "legal possession" (or "spiritual possession" for that matter). It refers to (a) a grammatical structure, (b) the semantics that that grammatical structure expresses.

<<I agree with what you write about "of".>> :-)

@ Luther - "Ladies Room" should be "Ladies' Room" - it is the equivalent of "Men's Room" (plural possessive/genitive). "Boys' Town" (how purists - which I am not one of - would say it should be written) is the same type. They are not exceptions. 

@ Peter - the point is not what I or you or Glennys would say - but what people really say. If we pay attention, we notice that things like "table's legs" are said in all seriousness by native speaking English people in in-context communication, and that the native speaker listeners understand them perfectly well. 

The job of the descriptive grammarian/linguistic is to note what people really say - and when and why they say it. And what has been noted by decades of research now is that things like "a table's legs" are indeed correct English, just as "the legs of a/the table" and "the table legs" ae correct - but that the different constructions have different meanings. 

The job of prescriptive grammarians is to say what people "should" say - however what people should and actually say can be two different things. The roblem with prescriptive grammar is that it is not based on research, but simply "tradition".

ESL Teacher for Native Russians
When I see things like this from a linguist, I tend to suffer fron a sense of a credibility gap! 

I offered a statement that seems to be overlooked and all of the prescribers seem to be like doctors diagnosing a runny nose as the totality of the person and saying thay this person has a sinus infection. Sometimes, noses "run" for reasons beyond illness!
Rod M. likes this

Forgive me for not having my thinking cap on! Of course, I was referring to a Ladies' and Men's Room. The name of that school in Omaha, NB is "Boy's Town" from that famous film with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, paying special tribute to the work of Father Flanagan in the 1930s. I believe it was named for the boys, rather children it would be made (supposed) to serve, and used as an adjective. The modern possessive politically correct version would be Children's Town, don't you agree?

Anyse, I apologise (for myself, at least). 

<< Hmmm .... The thread has gone amuk. Dr. Anirhudda (sic!). There is one way that the posessive can be used as you stated: "This table's legs [or "These tables' legs . . . ."] are uneven (broken, ugly, cheap, whatever). I don't know why anyone did not come up with this one here of course, you are talking about a specific table or a group of tables as opposed to others! >> 

I focused on your reference to the "beer" stuff - or assumed the "run amuk" referred to that. 

These tables' legs are uneven. <<you are talking about a specific table or a group of tables as opposed to others>> 

Is it the "these" that has this specifying function, or the possessive form? Or both? 

<<When I see things like this from a linguist, I tend to suffer fron a sense of a credibility gap! >> Could you expand on this? 

Of course - we have to be clear that "linguist" covers a variety of categories, some of which seem to be mutually exclusive, such as the more traditional use of "linguist" as being a person who speaks more than one language and has an interest in languages, or "structural linguists", or "functional linguists", or "cognitive linguists", or "generative linguists", and so on.

@ Luther - lack of thinking caps happens to the best of us (and I am serious). 

From Wikipedia - and the one written "Boy's Town" is probably someone's mistake: 

Boys Town (organization), an organization dedicated to the housing and education of at-risk children, founded by Father Edward J. Flanagan 

Boys' Town (Engadine), a residential school for boys with behavioural issues in Engadine, New South Wales, Australia 

Boys' Town Public School, an English medium school in Nashik, Maharashtra, India 

Boystown, Chicago, a gay village in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, USA 

Boys Town, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, USA, and the headquarters of the Boys Town organization 

Boy's Town (prostitution), a district in a Mexican border city that is formally designated for legalized prostitution 

Boys Town (film), a 1938 film about Father Flanagan and his work, starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, with Henry Hull and Leslie Fenton 

Boystown (film), a 2007 Spanish film 

Boyztown, a gay and underage red-light district in Pattaya, Thailand 

The modern politically correct form (at least for schools that are now co-ed) would be Children's Town.

Yes, "this" singular and "these" or "those" plural AND referring to one or more of those among others. Simple, really!

OK - I see, so you weren't referring to the use of the possessive/genitive marker 's at all. Thanks for clarifying.

English teacher at minstery of education
thanks so much Rod for ur detailed explanation for possessive. It was really helpful.
Rod M. likes this

I almost forgot, "Boystown" is now a registered trademark! Also, it is the name of a song from Rob Jungklas in the 1980s...

Rod, What you say is right, of course, but I am also sure that you'd agree that when we consider whether something is grammatically correct or not in instances of this type, the importance of context, purpose and audience in communication is the deciding factor. For example, I personally prefer table leg to table's leg in most of the contexts I have imagined ... and would not confuse the meaning but I would not suggest alternatives were "wrong" per se. Context is everything. Maybe to avoid an over prescriptive attitude we should think more in terms of appropriateness as defined above and an awareness of formality and informality instead of rigid conformity to "rules". 
So much of this seems a matter a taste... it is very easy to appear elitist when pontificating about how language should be used ... but many respect and value traditions which they believe defend the language from the adoption of the fashionable or trendy influences which although acceptable in their context are not appropriate for general usage!

Peter - it looks like you have understood exactly what I am saying, which is (in your words) "the importance of context, purpose and audience in communication is the deciding factor".

In most cases, because when we refer to tables (and other things) we are well aware of this impersonal reference, then the two normal possibilities are "a/the table leg", "a/the bottle cap", "a door handle" and "a/the leg of a/the table ", "a/the cap of a/the bottle", "a/the handle of a/the door", depending on the contextual reference and which is the head word (= topic) of the noun phrase.

In cases where personalisation/special effect (etc etc etc) are concerned, it is perfectly OK to say "a/the table's leg" and so on. For exacty the reason you stated "the importance of context, purpose and audience in communication is the deciding factor".

And - I repeat - this variation has been in English for centuries - it is NOT "fashionable", "trendy" - meaning "modern developments". The further back in English we go [and I am talking about centuries, not simply a hundred years ago], the more common the structure "a/the table's leg" gets even in impersonal reference - and the less common "the leg of the table" gets (the distinction between "off" and "of" only developed around the Elizabethan period; before that "of" was the unstressed form of "off").

Adjunct Faculty at Miami Dade College
Another common mistake related to possessive is the use of "whose" to refer to inanimate objects; for example, "The table whose leg is broken is in the corner of the room." I hear a lot of English language learners trying to force the word which instead of the word whose even though they very well know that whose is used. I think that because the word whose contains the word who, they think that the word whose should be used only when referring to people.

Strictly speaking "whose" with reference to things is not a mistake, but a well documented usage. In Old and Middle English it was standard, and bit by bit over the last few hundred years or so has been dying out in "everyday" English. It is right that nowadays in everyday English "whose" for things is not normal. 

[In Early Modern English, "whose" was the genitive/possessive of both "who" and "what", and in even earlier English "whom" was also the dative of "what" (in appropriate older English spelling, of course: 

Middle English/very Early Modern English 
nominative : who what 
accusative : whom what 
genitive : whose whose 
dative : whom whom 
instrumental : ------- why] 

The usage of "whose" for things has stayed on strongest in academic writing, where it is extremely useful, particularly when word count is important.
Dean B., Mariella C. and 1 other like this

Dear Rod, What a great dissertation on the subject........I have learned from it. You seem to have it all at the tip of your fingers. 

Has anyone thought of "its" ? Its legs, (dog or table) its roof, boundaries, whatever?

<The table whose leg> 

You're right. From now on, I will say 'The table that's leg . .' I always say 'The person who . . rather than 'that'.

<Its legs> 

I can't remember in French, does the possessive adjective (son, sa) go with the possessor in gender, or the possessed? I think it goes with the 'leg' in 'my leg' (ma jambe), 'my' being a male, even though 'ma' is the female adjective, which I guess goes with 'jambe', which is a feminine noun.

I use "the person who/that" indiscriminately - they are both correct in Modern English. Note that in older English "that" was only for neuters; Old and Middle English had gender similar to that of German, e.g. "wif" (> wife) and "mægden" (> maiden, maid) were both neuter nouns and "wifmann" (> woman) was masculine). 

Old English had a "bland" relative pronoun, "the" (nothing directly to do with the modern "the"), which was used in conjunction with appropriate pronouns (se the wolde ... "that male/masculine object who/that wanted/would ...", seo the nolde... "that female/feminine object who didn't want/wouldn't", thæt the on felde is ..."that neuter that is in the field...". 

As the language changed through the Middle English period, the "the" became replaced by "that", which has the benifit of being much clearer - and in Middle English neutral 

In other words, when "that" started its life out as a relative marker, it could refer to both people and things. This is still its use in Modern English. 


"its" - "it" had a very similar evolution to "what". In Old and Middle English the word was written and pronounced "hit"; this was still the case in Early Modern English. "Hit" was still common in the Elisabethan period. It is the one word in Modern English where "h" dropping has become standard. Apparently "hit" still esicts in local dialects, particularly in Scotland. 

In Old/Middle English, "hit", "he" and "heo" (she) were the masculine, neuter and feminine pronouns/demonstratives that expressed "this referent here"; the other pronouns/demonstratives were "se/seo/thæt" (Midde English the/the/that) "that referent there", and the ancestors of "this/these" - which emphasised this/these rather than that/those. 

In time, the h- pronouns become "neutral" to positional reference, and so now are no longer felt to be demonstratives. 

In Old/Middle English, the declension it "hit" shared the genitive/possessive and dative with "he", just as "what" shared these with "who": 

Middle English 
nominative : he --- hit 
accusative : hin/him --- hit 
genitive : his --- his 
dative : him --- him 

(In Old english the accusative of "he" was "hine", which is the ancestor of the Devonshire etc. "hin/'un" for "him") 

The use of "his" for its lasted till Early Modern English times, but as English lost grammatical gender and developed "natural" gender, "his" increasingly was restricted to males, and so "hits" was developed; around the same time the use of "him" for things also died out. 


In the Latin languages, the porssessive agrees in gender and number with the possessed: 

ma jambe/mes jambes, mon chat/mes chats 
la mia gamba/le mie gambe, il mio gatto/i miei gatti 
sa gamba mia/is gambas mias, su pisitu miu/is pisitus mius 

In the Germanic and Celtic langauges, it agrees with the possessor.

Nelson, I hope that what you wrote was tongue-in-cheek! If not, horrible!

Where I grew up, among the uneducated, "thats" as the equivalent for things of "whose" for people is sometimes to be heard :

The man whose windas are broken ...
The house thats windas are broken ...

It's a logical development, and has the beauty of being regular. When "its" first started to appear a few centuries ago, people probably then also cringed.

"Thats", however, is an innovation. In Old English and early Middle English there was also the genetive of the demonstratives : Old English "thæs" for the masculine and neutre, and "thære" for the feminine. If that word had been kept in Modern English, we woulds now be saying:

The house thes windows are broken ...


I'm not so sure that 'that' will not someday be used with the possessive 's. I like to use 'who' for people.

# Rod 

I'm sure I've said, "'The house thats windas are broken ..." - it sounds perfectly natural to me. But written down it looks really weird. If I'd ever had to write it, I'm not sure I wouldn't have written, "The house that's windows are broken ...' But I suppose that's just like people writing, "The man who's windows are broken ..." 

I'm still struggling to understand why, "a stone's throw" is a possessive. The throw doesn't belong to the stone. It belongs to the person throwing. 

I've seen EFL/ESL manuals *for* teachers entitled severally: "Teachers Book," "Teacher's Book" and "Teachers' Book. Seems EFL/ESL publishers aren't sure either in this field. ;-) 

Looking forward to another enlightening post from you, Rod.

Thanks Rod for explaining all about its/it. Must have come originally from the Dutch......op het Platteland..........where HET means THE. You can see a pattern in the Germanic words coming westwards, over Holland and the Fresian Islands.....i find that fascinating. 

i wonder if we have run ourselves into a corner (we, collective users) trying to ;find a shorter form for things. I find myself explaining in class that the language is changing all the time, and give them examples of what I learned as correct at school, and what is considered correct/acceptable now. Students usually like to hear this, and I do believe it helps them to understand. This changing should help us to understand also why We can say "a stone's throw" or "a car door"......speakers are messy with their changes. What about "the house with broken windows?? isn't there always a way round these things? 

Would you believe, I was taught to say "The table, of which one leg is broken.........(!) Sounds off in today's English. I teach "The table leg" OR "the leg of the table" , either will do. I also learned to write to-day and to-morrow in Elementary school, can't remember when the hyphen became unnecessary. And I'm not talking about ancient times, only the fifties. 
This has turned into a fascinating discussion.......and very agreeable, which is great.

My pleasure, Bridget. 

However, "hit" didn't come from Dutch 'het'; they have a common history dating back to Proto Germanic. All the Germanic languages have a common origin. The closest languages to English are Scots (La'lands), then the three Frisian languages, then Plattdeutsch (Low German). Dutch is a little more distant, the Norse languages somewhat different in another direction, and German more distant. 

2000 years ago, English (the Jutes, Angles and Saxons), Frisian and Plattdeutsch were the same language with local variations [dialects]. Plattdeutsch is the language of the descendants of the Saxons, Angles and Jutes that stayed on the mainland. The Franconians (Dutch etc.) orginally came from just south of the Saxons. They migrated southwestwards and took over what is now Holland, much of Belgium and part of northwest France. A lot of the territory they took over was Frisian, and so Dutch also has some Fries influence; in some dialects this is very strong. 

We also forget that the first Germanic language to be written down after Gothic was English; therefore we know that "hit" etc etc etc existed in English from at least the 500s. English missionaries were then very important in taking Christianity and writing to their cousins back n the "homeland"; in those days (1000+ years ago), English, Frisian and Plattdeutsch were still dialects of the one overall language. 

I say this to put things into perspective. English is not a language that has taken everything from everywhere; this is a serious misunderstanding not only of history, but also of historical and comparative linguistics. English is still very much an Anglo-Saxon language in so many ways. 

The changes in Dutch were a little different from those in English. The "h" pronouns/dfemonstratives (English "he" etc.) have become "hij" "he" and "het" "it", while "zij" "she/they" come from the "th/s" pronouns (English "the", "that", etc.). The definite article for masculine and feminine is "de" (the same origin as English "the"), the plural is "die" (same origin as the English words "they" and "those"), but the neuter article is "het".

While it is true the language is changing all the time - it is a lot slower than we think. Also, it is important to keep in mind distinctions such as formal vs informal, technical vs non-technical, official vs non-offical. These contrasts exist in all languages, and therefore students are already overtly or subconsciously aware of these. 

What we learnt as correct at school was based on Formal English - and therefore deal with the rules of formal language; we also teach other types of English in EFL/ESL classes - which is important as well. The rules being different is not a case of "this is what it used to be like, but now things have changed", but "this is formal [or whatever] English, and that is informal [or whatever] English". 

There is a big difference between "a stone's throw" and "a car door". A car door is a door specifically made for a car. "A stone's throw" is the distance convered by a stone when thrown" - it is not a "throw specifically made for a stone". It is this "specifically for" that is a major key (a bottle cap, a door handle, a wine bottle, a coffee cup) - the thing described is something that is specifically for the the attributive noun. 

In "a week's time" and "a stone's throw", this is not the case. 

As long as the teacher is well aware of these and has developed good activities, students understand and can start putting the concepts in to proactice quite readily. If I the teacher am not awae - or only vaguely aware, it can be like the blind leading the blind.

"The house with broken windows" 

The important thing is to really understand what “with” means. This is the same for all prepositions. We as EFL teachers all to often tell our students things like “prepositions don’t mean anything; you just have to learn them as collocations”. This is far from the truth. It is simply teachers etc. not knowing how to really analise language or to dig into their own native speaker awareness. 

WITH shows concrete or abstract togetherness, either in position (state) or in activity or in using a tool/instrument to do something. Its older meaning of AGAINST is still to be found in some compounds and in certain phrases. The core meaning of togetherness has various subcategories, such as accompaniment (run with), ‘having’ (Geoff left the mobile with the secretary, a cat with a short tail, someone with intelligence, a ship with lateen sails, eggs with sunny side up), real or abstract tool/instrument (open the door with a piece of bent wire, sings with gusto, spend money with gay abandon) and agreement (mental togetherness) : The majority of the electors were with the government in their plans to abolish private ownership of guns. 

I.e. "the house with broken windows" - here "with" has the same subcategory use as "the girl with greeen eyes".

And - "the table, of which one leg ..." this is still perfectly correct - in Formal English; students also need to know that.

@ Glennys - a stone's throw : it is called a "possessive" for syntactic/grammatical reasons - the presence of the 's makes it possessive. In older English the 's had a wider range of uses than in Modern English. For example, all the following words contain the possessive: 

against, whilst, once, twice, thrice, amidst. 

"A stone's throw" is of the same category - which was that the 's showed that the word itself (again, while, etc.) has an specifying role where the attribution of distance/quantity/length/duration is specified by the word itself (a week's time = the time is the total week, a strone's throw - the distance is that of the distance flowen by the stone). 

It is not possessive in the core sense of the verb "possess". 

The more correct term for 's is "genitive", which covers both possession but also the other uses of 's.
Dr Aniruddha B. likes this

" ... Rocket's red glare..."

Rod has done more in-depth study than I have on Northern European languages. I remember Plattdeutsch in the very Northern areas of Germany, and always felt that much Scandinavian was derived from it (Zeit became Tid, and so on). 

Many English people seem to lack recognition of their German language roots, or maybe they don't want to know? I have to say that learning German and the Scandinavian languages was a revelation for me................having gone down the prevalent Classical route, in my schooling, which was, I believe, dictated by Latin Oxbridge professors in the 18th Century 
Do correct me if I am mistaken.
Rod M., Dr Aniruddha B. like this

"...dawn's early light..."

Much Scandinavian is not derived from Plattdeutsch (Zeit is Hochdeutsch). There are loan words form both Plattdeutsch and Hochdeutsch in the Scandinavian languages, but "tid" is not one of those. 

The Germanic languages have the same origin, and each grouping (Northern - Scandinavian, North-Sea (English, Frisian, Plattdeutsch, Scots) - the "inland" Germanic languages (Hochdeutsch, Schwaebisch, Schwitzertuetsch, etc.) have charactersitcs specific to them. Some of these characteristics have been evident since writing started in each group, and others have developed since. 

The English word "tide" used to mean "time" (as Whitsuntide). This word is related to the Dutch "tijd" "time", German "Zeit" "time" and the Scandinavian "tid". However, these are words that have always been in each group, and descend from the Proto-Germanic form. 

Some of the changes are parallel in different groups, e.g. English, Dutch and German all have much the same vowel in "tide", "tijd" and "Zeit". Some are more unique. The "inland" Germanic languages are the only ones where the older "t" has become either "z" (pronounced "ts" or "ss", and "d" has become "t" (tide/tijd/tid vs Zeit). Because of these changes, more recent loans are obvious. The English word “wagon” is from Dutch or German “Wagen” (traditionally it is assigned to Dutch). The native English word is “wain”. 

It is also important not to confuse German with Germanic. Germanic refers to the whole family of languages (hence English, Dutch, Icelandic, Afrikaans are all Germanic languages); much of the everyday (as well as quite a bit of the formal) vocabulary of English is Germanic, and came over with the English from the continent when they settled England. The grammar of English is also Germanic, with some influence, particularly in formal/academic/legal language, from French (and Italian) and Latin (the use of "of" in "The City of London" is from French, some of the uses of "well" as an adverb is from French bien / Latin bene, etc.). 

As for English people knowing that so much of their language is Germanic. Most English people probably don't care. They are not really interested in history or whatever. There was also the issue of the relative position of French to English, dating from the Norman invasion. French since then has had an "elegance", while English for a long time was reduced to being the language of the "natives" [which is how the Normans treated the English] - and therefore the peasantry. 

Another misunderstanding has been caused by the use of "Anglo-Saxon". This was a fairly recent coining; the Anglo-Saxions didn’t call themselves that. They either called themselves the English and spoke English (in Old English form, of course), or more specifically as West Saxons, East Saxons, etc. according to local loyalties. 

With the rediscovery of Anglo-Saxon literature (1500s on), the term Anglo-Saxon was invented to refer to the English of that period. The habit then slowly also set in of - in the 1900s particularly - of assuming that "English" could only refer to the English of Chaucer on, and that Anglo-Saxon was somehow different; that the Norman invasion and the influx of French somehow changed English to another language - a mix of French and English and Norse and so on. 

With more recent research, we now realise that this is not the case - not only that we know what the Anglo-Saxons called themselves, but also the written evidence doesn’t show that English all of a sudden "changed". One piece of research in the late 70s (or 80s?) did some statistics, using around 150 words and grammar items, doing the statistics of their use around the year 1000, the year 1500, and nominally 2000. They found that exactly half of the things that had changed between 1000 and now had happened by 1500, and the other half happened after.

We also have to be careful about WHO is making pronouncements about language origins (and so on). Many of those doing so, particularly on TV, in documentaries, etc. are historians, archeologists, geneticists and so on, who know very little about language and linguistics.

Academic Consultant at Macmillan Publishers
Wow Rod, your posts are certainly great!! And I do totally agree with them. Very interesting!! I´ve had a great time and laughs reading all of these controversies.

teacher of English and Russian
You are a real English expert and researcher!
Rod M., Jenifer S. like this

Common usage of inanimate possessives warrants a second look. Grammarians may differ but the form is much used and well understood by native speakers of English.

in one's mind's eye 
Fig. in one's mind or imagination. (Alludes to visualizing something in one's mind.) In my mind's eye, I can see trouble ahead. In her mind's eye, she could see a beautiful building beside the river. She decided to design such a building.


A hair's breadth,

"A ship's captain commands and manages all ship's personnel, and is typically in charge of the ship's accounting, payrolls, and inventories. The captain is responsible for compliance with immigration and customs regulations, maintaining the ship's certificates and documentation, compliance with the vessel's security plan, as mandated by the International Maritime Organization. The captain is responsible for responding to and reporting in case of accidents and incidents, and in case of injuries and illness among the ship's crew and passengers. A ship's captain must have a master's license or certificate, issued by the ship's flag state, or a state licensing authority if operating within "non-federal" waters." 
a hair's breadth 
Definition › a very small distance or amount: His finger was within a hair's breadth of touch ing the alarm. She came within a hair's breadth of losing her life (= she nearly died)
Rod M. likes this

I wonder if the apostrophe-type issues discussed will actually become defunct, as the noun phrase seems to be increasingly dominant in English. Every day new examples crop up in all sorts of fields of modern discourse (business, IT, officialese, academic, facebook postings etc.- e.g. widow graphics, consumer focus groups, energy price scenarios, knowledge taxonomy, night-time lane closures, man flu etc,.) I often get the impression that the noun phrase will gradually supplant other types of phrases (and may even become the new sentence!) Rod- any erudition on whether the Anglo-Saxons were into noun phrases?? 
I wonder if it is not changes in the language we should be focusing on but changes in the discourse (i.e. the things we talk about and the purposes for which we communicate?) I suspect these may be bigger and transcend all the different regional 'Englishes' we use. Any thoughts on this?

Someone was complaining above that this thread has run amuk (I'd say "amok", but anyway). 
Don't you think, folks, that this thread has meandered delightfully, taken in lots of wonderful details and pieces of information? I do! And I simply love it when conversation meanders like this in the classroom, and I thank the Lord for its participants. It does happen, at times. 
Rod, do gather up all your contributions and keep them somewhere safe.....otherwise someone else is going to write your book (!) using your wonderful language.
No, you cannot use the saxon genitive to talk about a table leg. There are many expressions, some of which have been demonstrated by various readers on this site, in which it's used, but unless you want to sound like a horse's ......., try to stay away from talking about the table's leg!

Three of the table's four legs are firmly on the ground. Its fourth is not. Note its has no apostrophy but is it not a possessive? or is it one of those wandering genitives?
 Rod M. likes this

@ Jenifer : You are referring to something that is common in languages of the world, the use of an attributive noun to describe another noun – it exists in English, German, French, Italian, Australian Aboriginal languages, Chinese, Malay-Indonesian, etc etc etc. In some other languages it doesn’t exist – a noun has to have an attributive adjective marking to act as an adjective. 

How they are written varies from language to language. In German they are written as compound nouns, for example, while in English we generally keep them separate; we could also write them as compounds or with hyphens. 

The function is different from the ‘s, and that is why attributives are so common and useful. The difference has existed for some centuries. There is literary evidence of attributive noun forms being treated differently from their non-attributive noun form already in the 1000s into the 1100s (the generations around the Norman Conquest) – apart from compound nouns in Old English made of noun+noun compounds. 

Where the use of ‘s/of/attributives are concerned, this seems exactly the same in all Englishes (standard Englishes and dialects). Partly it is to do with the loss of cases in the evolution of English, but also reading, writing, television, films, etc. having become pretty-well universal in English-speaking countries (and many others, of course). The common usages that are part of all Englishes become “highlighted”, while regional uses either stay regional, or sometimes become “fashion” elsewhere. 

(We are so used to seeing the differences between the different types of English (e.g. a fairly typical remark is for educated speakers of GAE to say that the equivalent type of UK English is “very different”) that we forget that looking from the outside in, the differences are actually miniscule.) 

<<I wonder if it is not changes in the language we should be focusing on but changes in the discourse (i.e. the things we talk about and the purposes for which we communicate?) I suspect these may be bigger and transcend all the different regional 'Englishes' we use. Any thoughts on this?>> 

This is the root of all language use – the usability of language in discourse. 

Old English was a case-marking language (like Latin, Greek, etc.), and so expressed relationships in a way typical of case-marking languages. Modern English is mainly a word order language, and so expresses relationships in a way typical of word-order languages It is almost impossible to detach the linguistic forms used to express concepts from the concepts themselves (structural/generative linguistics tries to – but at times ties itself up in knots). 

In analysis of the link between form and meaning, the important point is always to start from the meaning – concept – the meaning being given – and work from that to the structure. So many of us through lack of experience or lack of time or whatever tend to go from the structure to the meaning. This is almost natural; after all we can “see” the structure, but not the meaning.

its : note that the other personal pronouns also do not put the apostrophe; it is part of our inconsistent spelling rules: 

his, whose, ours, yours, theirs. 

In Old English, Middle English and early Modern English, the apostrophe was not used; or, rather, beginning in early Modern English, it started top be commonly use to show the loss of an item, as it is still used in Modern English. 

In Early Modern English, the unstressed "e"s in the following words were still pronounced: 

the mannes hat (= the man's hat) 
i walked in the field where i saw some horses and foales. 

In writing such as diaries, ships logs, and so on, well into the 1800s, such unstressed vowels were replaced by the apostrophe where in colloquial English these dropped: 

the mann's hat/the man's hat 
i walk'd in the field where i saw some horses and foal's. 

In formal speech the vowels were kept (as still is the case in the poetic pronunciation of words like "winged"). 

Over time, the tradition developed of either keeping the vowel even when it was completely lost (walked), or dropping it completely (foals) - and the use of the ' in 's simply as a means of distinguishin in the written word the 's from the plural. 

Note that in speaking we have no problem normally distinguishing the two, and this is the same in writing. The appostrophe in itself is "mere tradition". 

"The mans hat" cannot be understood in any other way except as one man one hat. 

"the dogs legs" - here there is ambiguity, that in speaking is generally clear (we are obviously talking about one or more dogs), and in writing/reading such potential ambiguity is also clear fro context.

Thanks Rod- and hurry up and write that book on the English language!! You have rather confirmed my suspicion that apostrophes continue to be used mainly to boost the self-esteem of pedants. Think how much printing ink would be saved (with the result of a lower output of industrial solvents into the environment) if we agreed to abandon them entirely! 
We could legislate this in a package that also allowed 'their' as a unisex pronoun, thus getting rid of all that 'Each student should bring his or her candidate number' nonsense.

History means nothing when it comes to a "living" language such as English is now. You can see what is going on or, do as they did with Latin: prescribe, prescribe, prescribe! Calling those with whom you disagree as "pedants" is a, sincerely and painful, low blow. There is a great diversity here and, cutting off others to satisfy what you "feel" is right is a bit on the elitist side of things. I will not stand with elitists!

I don't know if it is a case of calling those who one disagrees with "pedants" and assuming that that means "elitists" (generally the elitists tend to be the pedants, it is who "elitism" is maintained) - but rather "us who suffer the slings of "elitism" fighting back against elitist pedanticism.

Oh my, Anyse, That is fighting talk !! 
I would disagree with you on the role of well as being truly fascinating, it helps us discover truths, what really did happen rather than myth, and a host of other good things. 
We as teachers, ought to have the mobile mind we developed during our education, and be able to think in and round and out of the box. 
Do you feel there are too many elitists on this thread, or.............
Rod M. likes this

History means everything to living languages. All languages contain retentions from their past in their contemporary form, and the seeds of their future. 

In English, for example, the difference between I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, and they/them (and thou/thee) are "archaic" in comparison to "you", "it" and all nouns. 

In the Romance languages, having personal pronouns before the verb is likewise "archaic" (he saw me - il m'a vu/mi ha visto/me vio/m'at biu). Object before the verb was the Latin structure (he saw me : meum vidit, he saw the man : hominem vidit), whereas nouns in the Romance languages have the "modern" structure of the object after the verb (he saw the man - il a vu l'homme/ha visto l'uomo/vio al hombre/ha biu a s'omini). 

Of course, these so-called "archaic" things are not archaic - they are part of contemporary English and the Romance languages. 

Another example from contemporary English - most of us recognise "thou", "thee" and the verb endings "-est" and "-eth", and will use these to give an old fashioned "Olde English" feel to our speaking or writing (not always correctly - for example, those who write or say things like "thou knoweth nought" [instead of "thou knowest nought"] or "I knoweth thou" [instead of "I know/knowe thee"] show more of their ignorance than anything else). 

Knowing the history of English explains the present - and in some ways can also predict the future.

It's "its" that proves the rule.

@<Knowing the history of English explains the present - and in some ways can also predict the future.> 
That is really interesting Rod. I am fascinated at the way the on-line community, , have resurrected lots of archaic language (particularly the ones who play WOW and similar fantasy games) and I love that my computer quotes Milton when it says 'Access denied!' even though it p***es me off in doing it! 
For the record, Anyse, I was not dissing pedants who keep it to themselves- I have my own set of pedantries, like so many English teachers. I just dislike the type of people who make other people feel small or inadequate if they make trivial departures from the stricter forms of punctuation, particularly. I think we should listen to what others say, not how they say it.
Rod M., Glenys H. like this

Having looked back along the posts - I see what you mean, Anyse. You are right, it is an insult, as I tried to say very inelegantly - and with tongue in cheek - with "us who suffer the slings of "elitism" fighting back against elitist pedanticism". 

Other "archaic" parts of English that I thought of where older English usages are still alive and kicking - "cut to the quick", "the quick and the dead", "meat and drink to my soul", "fish wife", "midwife".
American and British English aren't very different languages in usages - particularly where the standard language is concerned. 

Some of the differences are "myth", others are actual, but in reality, we read each others' literature, live in each others' countries, go to each others' universities, marry each other, write for each others' newspapers - it is impossible for US and UK English to be very different languages.

 The veterinarian said, "look at that lamb's leg" as he barbecued a leg of lamb.

Allen- If he 'SAID' it how can we see the apostrophe :) ? I just feel we would be better off without them, if we understand spoken language perfectly well without them. 
But Anyse, please note I am only against apostrophes- not people who use them! Of course we all se them, because convention says we should- I am questioning convention, not getting at anyone who uses apostrophes in any particular context. The discussion in this thread has been open and thoughtful. 
The kind of elitism I was questioning is where people sneer at other people's use of punctuation- it is particularly common in the UK- especially from journalists and columnists who like to make fun of what they perceive to be the 'less well-educated' sections of the population. That is the kind of elitism I was referring to- maybe it is not common where you are based.

<<The veterinarian said, "look at that lamb's leg" as he barbecued a leg of lamb. >> Which lamb was he/she looking at? One in a field next to the barbecue? Or...? 

<<That is the kind of elitism I was referring to- maybe it is not common where you are based. >> I get the impression from the discussions in Grammar Greeks and elsewhere that it is as bad in the States as in the UK, and maybe even worse.

PS - what I mean by us being "INSIDE" English is that we are so used to focusing in on the differences, that we lose sight of the domination of sameness. We can quite easily communicate with people from the States (etc.) because the vast bulk of the English we use is the same.

Here is an interesting one I came across this evening: for part of an experimental section in a thesis I was reviewing, the writer has written the heading 'Materials synthesis'' . 
My question to the forum members- does this sound OK to you? what advice would you give this writer about use of apostrophe or otherwise??

Materials Synthesis : I would take this without having read the paper as referring to synthesis as applied to different materials (or different materials and the synthesis that occirs to them); this being different from "material synthesis", which would probably refer to synthesis as applied to (a) material state(s), or the synthesis that occurs in a material state. 

Materials synthesis = The synthesis of materials is another possibility - but this is not a possessive; it is a partitive. 

In other words, no '.

<Materials synthesis> 

It sounds OK to me. It sounds like a program where different materials are synthesized.

Nelson, the problem in this case was discourse-related, as apparent 'language' issues so often are. The purpose of the Method section in a thesis or report is to explain what the writer did and how they did it. So the focus was really on how the student made the materials required, not the materials themselves- he had already discussed those and why he selected them in earlier chapters. So the reader's real question was 'So how did you make these compounds?' The focus of his actual text was a kind of recipe explaining how he prepared these compounds- the 'synthesising' activities. I decided that was why it sounded wrong in this context- so I advised the heading should be Synthesis of materials (which actually matched his subheadings, and paragraphs,which were all about activities in the process) . The point this example made me reflect on was that. if we take an example out of context (using a made up example out of heads, usually a single sentence which is possible (in an imaginary and often unlikely context), it often obscures how the language is likely to be used in real discourse contexts.
Rod M. likes this

<matched his subheadings> 

Yes, if he used a structure in his other headings I would follow it more or less consistently. Otherwise I would use the more common expression.
Rod M. likes this

English teacher at Bill's Home-tutorship Service
ROD, You've got my vote. (It's Beauty.) Yes, Swan is wrong and there are a lot in his boat.

Independent E-Learning Professional
I agree that there is an "animate-inanimate" distinction and also the "personal-impersonal" distinction that Rod, but I feel there are also others that I don't know how to sum up so neatly.

1) When x is qualified by a relative clause, only the "of the x" construction can be used:
Looking at an amputated leg.
Doctor A: "What's this?"
Doctor B: "It's the leg of the boy you operated on by mistake. It's perfectly healthy."

Sorry for the grisly example but I wanted to stay with "leg". There are plenty of others: We've been seeing in the papers these days a lot of photos of Mandela, who was South Africa's first black president."

2) Imagine the situation where you and your partner have bought a house and discovered some antique tables in the attic. Unfortunately, a lot of the legs have been separated from the tables. You hold a table leg in your hand and ask: "Is this this table's leg or that table's leg?" It can be said in another way: "Is this the leg of this table or of that table?" But it sounds overly formal for the situation to me. In fact, I think I'd just say: "This table's leg or that table's leg?"

3) "Formality-informality" is another distinction. In conversation, I usually say: "I went to Edinburgh University" but if you type "Edinburgh University" in Google what it'll come up with first is "The University of Edinburgh" - that's what's written on my degree too.

(It's dreadful to be old and have no memory: What was that delightful term Bessel came of with for the list of sites Google shows us?)

In section 421 of Practical English Usage, Michael Swan says: 'we can say "a table leg' but not "a table's leg". He further says in 422: 
the arrival of the train or the train's arrival 
the importance of the plan or the plan's importance 


the cost of the roof but not the roof''s cost 
the window of the house but not the house's windows 
the bottom of the glass but not the glass's bottom 

The relationship between two nouns can be expressed by the 's genitive and the 'noun as adjective' structures. It's not easy to grasp the finer distinctions between the two structures; though grammar reflecting usage brings out these finer differences (see Michael Swan's 421-425 of Practical English Usage), they are better grasped as we read, listen and speak, that is, we need to listen to, speak and read English. 

Those of us who wish to help students to understand and appreciate the two ways of expressing the genitive should read the five sections in Michael Swan's Practical English Usage. 

Thanks Dr Anirudha for raising this issue.

Hi Kolipak

We can say "a table's leg" - and the other examples. Michael Swan got it wrong - and I can guarantee you that if I spoke to him about it, he would agree with me 100%.

The difference between possessive 's/s' and "of" is at two levels:

The "inanimate-inanimate" level (this is what Michael refers to):

Use 's/s' only with living and thinking things (people, animals, insects, etc.) (animates)

Use 'of' with things that can't think (plants, objects, etc.) (inanimates)

The basic difference actually is based on a more important difference - the real difference, which is a contrast between "personal" and "impersonal":

Use 's/s' when highlighting the "personalness" of the owner, whether it is animate or inanimate

Use 'of' when highlighting the "impersonalness" of the owner, whether it is animate or inanimate

This is what makes the difference between pairs like these : the school's teachers / the teachers of the school; the book's cover / the cover of the book; the man's leg / the leg of the man, the office of the President / the President's office, the newspaper's editor / the editor of the newspaper, etc.

We actively use 's/s' and 'of' to actively put the owner into the "personal" or "impersonal" category.

Coming back to "a table's leg" as an example of this. In the Disney animated film "Beaty and the Beast", the furniture in the castle is alive and can think and move. In that context, it is perfectly correct to say somethng like the following:

The chair was very angry at what was said, and so walked over and kicked the table's leg. The table in turn whipped around and whacked the chair's back. The chair screamed, and ran crying to the cupboard while the candles shook their heads in dismay.
 Dr Aniruddha B.Glenys H. like this

It's the 1983 edition of Practical English Usage from which I quoted the sentences. Naturally Mr Swan talked about the then usage. 

I'm sure even in the 1980s, people used the table's leg as pointed out by Glenys. But I don't know if I can say: a table's leg is broken. 

Frankly speaking, there is nothing wrong or right in the use of a language. What we mean by some expression being wrong is that people speaking the language don't use it that way and vice versa. Language keeps changing and grammar reflects these changes only after the given change gets established. The famous example of Churchill's comes to mind: It appears that Winston Churchill, furious at having some end-prepositions in a paper he'd written 'corrected' by an over-zealous secretary, sent it back with the corrections marked in red and a note: 'This is the sort of bloody nonsense (English) up with which I will not put.' The secretary must have gone by the book. Churchill's observation probably reflected the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence as something common then but not its placement in grammar books. 

From the comments of Rod, William and Glenys (taking them as representative) it appears that people have brought about changes in the way 's is to be used. Probably 'the table's leg is broken' and similar use of the genitive will enter the grammar book soon.