Genitive is Not Always Possessive

by Bob Cunningham

Over the years there have been postings to AUE that were based upon the misconception that the genitive case always indicates possession. This fallacy leads to people saying things like 'It can't be right to say "the room's furnishings" because a room can't possess something.'

The genitive case is in fact used for several things besides possession. Bergen and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, discuss seven genitive types:

  1. Classifying or descriptive genitive ("the room's furnishings")
  2. Possessive genitive ("Irene's coat")
  3. Subjective and objective genitive ("God's creation")
  4. Genitive of purpose ("He has written many children's books.")
  5. Measures and other adverbial genitives ("At one time the genitive form of certain words could be used as an adverb. Most of our adverbs that end in an 's' (or 'z') sound, such as "nowadays," "since," "sometimes," "upwards," are survivals from this period.)
  6. Survivals of "an old genitive of source" ("hen's eggs")
  7. Partitive and appositive genitives (don't exist in English, but we express them with an "of" phrase, as in "some of us," "the state of Ohio," "the title of president")

(The Evanses give a detailed discussion of each type; I've only hinted at their discussions, mostly by giving a few examples.)

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says, in part:

Bishop Lowth in 1762 used the word possessive in place of the older term genitive; so then did other 18th-century grammarians, and many grammarians since have used it. This change in terminology has led to a few minor usage problems based on the erroneous supposition that the only function of the genitive is to show possession. [...] Fries found that the possessive genitive was the most common, but that it accounted for only 40-percent of all genitives.

They discuss a number of uses of the genitive and give examples of each. Under 'descriptive genitive or classifying genitive', with the comment 'Fries adds the genitive of measure to this', they list:

the room's furnishings
the airplane's speed
the building's foundation
one day's leave
a dollar's worth
a year's wages
the Eighty Years' War

A comment in MWDEU concerns the rephrasing of the genitive with apostrophe to a structure with a prepositional phrase, as in:

'the airplane's speed' => 'the speed of the airplane'.

They point out that in what one grammarian (Evans) has called the genitive of purpose the prepositional phrase must use the preposition 'for' rather than 'of', as in:

'men's shirts' => 'shirts for men', and
'a girls' school' => 'a school for girls'.

Mark Israel's AUE FAQ doesn't cover the genitive-equals-possessive fallacy per se, but he does skirt the perimeter of it with:

The Latin plural of "curriculum vitae" is "curricula vitae".
[ . . . ]
This is a feature of the Latin genitive of content, which
differs in this regard from the more common Latin genitive
of possession.

A classic story in linguistics lore tells of the grammarian who tried to classify all of the ways the genitive can be used. He eventually threw up his hands and said that the genitive is the case that shows any relationship between two substantives.