Posted by: Jack Henry | November 17, 2022

Editor’s Corner: Your Possessives Have a Hierarchy

Good morning, folks. I recently read an article about the ways we form possessive words. It got me thinking much deeper about how we form them and why we do it the way we do.

We’re all very familiar with showing possession by using ’s (for example, Todd’s hat). The other way we show possession is with the word of (for example, the door of my house).

When I was studying English in college, I don’t remember any professor ever discussing these two forms of possession; but instinctively I, like most people who grew up speaking English, have always followed some implicit rules.

What I’ve learned since my college days is that there is a possessive hierarchy that basically works in decreasing order of humanness. The more human something is, the more likely we are to use ’s; and the more inanimate something is, the more likely we are to use the of construction. The interesting thing is, these are not steadfast rules, meaning that you’re not wrong if you break them, but your sentence will sound odd.

Let me give you some examples:

  • Jane’s car is parked in the garage.
  • The car of Jane is parked in the garage.
    Since Jane is human, we typically say and write, “Jane’s car.” The “car of Jane” just doesn’t feel right.
  • The dog’s fur was matted and dirty.
  • The fur of the dog was matted and dirty.

Animals are closer to humans in the hierarchy than inanimate objects, so most often, we’d use ‘s to show possession. I have often heard “hair of the dog” but only as an expression that means to have an alcoholic drink to stave off a hangover.

  • The temperature of the Pacific Ocean is cold, even in summer.
  • The Pacific Ocean’s temperature is cold, even in summer.

The Pacific Ocean is an inanimate object, so “the temperature of” sounds more natural, even though “the Pacific Ocean’s temperature” doesn’t sound too bad to my ears.

  • The door of the house was wide open.
  • The house’s door was wide open

A door is also an inanimate object so we would most likely use the word of. This example doesn’t seem quite so odd, but the first option just sounds right.

The English language is full of intricacies that we usually don’t even think about—until one curious editor starts digging around and asking questions and opening up worm’s cans (or is that cans of worms?).

Enjoy the rest of your day!

Donna Bradley Burcher |Technical Editor, Advisory | jack henry™

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123

Pronouns she/her/hers

Symitar Documentation Services

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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