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   Chapter 20 Uses of the Possessive.

An English Grammar By William Malone Baskervill Characters: 20247

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

60. The possessive case always modifies another word, expressed or understood. There are three forms of possessive showing how a word is related in sense to the modified word:-

(1) Appositional possessive, as in these expressions,-

The blind old man of Scio's rocky isle.-Byron.

Beside a pumice isle in Bai?'s bay.-Shelley.

In these sentences the phrases are equivalent to of the rocky isle [of] Scio, and in the bay [of] Bai?, the possessive being really equivalent here to an appositional objective. It is a poetic expression, the equivalent phrase being used in prose.

(2) Objective possessive, as shown in the sentences,-

Ann Turner had taught her the secret before this last good lady had been hanged for Sir Thomas Overbury's murder.-Hawthorne.

He passes to-day in building an air castle for to-morrow, or in writing yesterday's elegy.-Thackeray

In these the possessives are equivalent to an objective after a verbal expression: as, for murdering Sir Thomas Overbury; an elegy to commemorate yesterday. For this reason the use of the possessive here is called objective.

(3) Subjective possessive, the most common of all; as,-

The unwearied sun, from day to day,

Does his Creator's power display.


If this were expanded into the power which his Creator possesses, the word Creator would be the subject of the verb: hence it is called a subjective possessive.

61. This last-named possessive expresses a variety of relations. Possession in some sense is the most common. The kind of relation may usually be found by expanding the possessive into an equivalent phrase: for example, "Winter's rude tempests are gathering now" (i.e., tempests that winter is likely to have); "His beard was of several days' growth" (i.e., growth which several days had developed); "The forest's leaping panther shall yield his spotted hide" (i.e., the panther which the forest hides); "Whoso sheddeth man's blood" (blood that man possesses).

How the possessive is formed.

62. As said before (Sec. 56), there are only two case forms. One is the simple form of a word, expressing the relations of nominative and objective; the other is formed by adding 's to the simple form, making the possessive singular. To form the possessive plural, only the apostrophe is added if the plural nominative ends in -s; the 's is added if the plural nominative does not end in -s.

Case Inflection.

Declension or inflection of nouns.

63. The full declension of nouns is as follows:-


1. Nom. and Obj. lady ladies

Poss. lady's ladies'

2. Nom. and Obj. child children

Poss. child's children's

A suggestion.

NOTE.-The difficulty that some students have in writing the possessive plural would be lessened if they would remember there are two steps to be taken:-

(1) Form the nominative plural according to Secs 39-53

(2) Follow the rule given in Sec. 62.

Special Remarks on the Possessive Case.

Origin of the possessive with its apostrophe.

64. In Old English a large number of words had in the genitive case singular the ending -es; in Middle English still more words took this ending: for example, in Chaucer, "From every schires ende," "Full worthi was he in his lordes werre [war]," "at his beddes syde," "mannes herte [heart]," etc.

A false theory.

By the end of the seventeenth century the present way of indicating the possessive had become general. The use of the apostrophe, however, was not then regarded as standing for the omitted vowel of the genitive (as lord's for lordes): by a false theory the ending was thought to be a contraction of his, as schoolboys sometimes write, "George Jones his book."

Use of the apostrophe.

Though this opinion was untrue, the apostrophe has proved a great convenience, since otherwise words with a plural in -s would have three forms alike. To the eye all the forms are now distinct, but to the ear all may be alike, and the connection must tell us what form is intended.

The use of the apostrophe in the plural also began in the seventeenth century, from thinking that s was not a possessive sign, and from a desire to have distinct forms.

Sometimes s is left out in the possessive singular.

65. Occasionally the s is dropped in the possessive singular if the word ends in a hissing sound and another hissing sound follows, but the apostrophe remains to mark the possessive; as, for goodness' sake, Cervantes' satirical work.

In other cases the s is seldom omitted. Notice these three examples from Thackeray's writings: "Harry ran upstairs to his mistress's apartment;" "A postscript is added, as by the countess's command;" "I saw what the governess's views were of the matter."

Possessive with compound expressions.

66. In compound expressions, containing words in apposition, a word with a phrase, etc., the possessive sign is usually last, though instances are found with both appositional words marked.

Compare the following examples of literary usage:-

Do not the Miss Prys, my neighbors, know the amount of my income, the items of my son's, Captain Scrapegrace's, tailor's bill-Thackeray.

The world's pomp and power sits there on this hand: on that, stands up for God's truth one man, the poor miner Hans Luther's son.-Carlyle.

They invited me in the emperor their master's name.-Swift.

I had naturally possessed myself of Richardson the painter's thick octavo volumes of notes on the "Paradise Lost."-DE QUINCEY.

They will go to Sunday schools to teach classes of little children the age of Methuselah or the dimensions of Og the king of Bashan's bedstead.-Holmes.

More common still is the practice of turning the possessive into an equivalent phrase; as, in the name of the emperor their master, instead of the emperor their master's name.

Possessive and no noun limited.

67. The possessive is sometimes used without belonging to any noun in the sentence; some such word as house, store, church, dwelling, etc., being understood with it: for example,-

Here at the fruiterer's the Madonna has a tabernacle of fresh laurel leaves.-Ruskin.

It is very common for people to say that they are disappointed in the first sight of St. Peter's.-Lowell.

I remember him in his cradle at St. James's.-Thackeray.

Kate saw that; and she walked off from the don's.-De Quincey.

The double possessive.

68. A peculiar form, a double possessive, has grown up and become a fixed idiom in modern English.

In most cases, a possessive relation was expressed in Old English by the inflection -es, corresponding to 's. The same relation was expressed in French by a phrase corresponding to of and its object. Both of these are now used side by side; sometimes they are used together, as one modifier, making a double possessive. For this there are several reasons:-

Its advantages: Euphony.

(1) When a word is modified by a, the, this, that, every, no, any, each, etc., and at the same time by a possessive noun, it is distasteful to place the possessive before the modified noun, and it would also alter the meaning: we place it after the modified noun with of.


(2) It is more emphatic than the simple possessive, especially when used with this or that, for it brings out the modified word in strong relief.


(3) It prevents ambiguity. For example, in such a sentence as, "This introduction of Atterbury's has all these advantages" (Dr. Blair), the statement clearly means only one thing,-the introduction which Atterbury made. If, however, we use the phrase of Atterbury, the sentence might be understood as just explained, or it might mean this act of introducing Atterbury. (See also Sec. 87.)

The following are some instances of double possessives:-

This Hall of Tinville's is dark, ill-lighted except where she stands.-Carlyle.

Those lectures of Lowell's had a great influence with me, and I used to like whatever they bade me like.-Howells

Niebuhr remarks that no pointed sentences of C?sar's can have come down to us.-Froude.

Besides these famous books of Scott's and Johnson's, there is a copious "Life" by Thomas Sheridan.-Thackeray

Always afterwards on occasions of ceremony, he wore that quaint old French sword of the Commodore's.-E. E. Hale.


(a) Pick out the possessive nouns, and tell whether each is appositional, objective, or subjective.

(b) Rewrite the sentence, turning the possessives into equivalent phrases.

1. I don't choose a hornet's nest about my ears.

2. Shall Rome stand under one man's awe?

3. I must not see thee Osman's bride.


At lovers' perjuries,

They say, Jove laughs.

5. The world has all its eyes on Cato's son.

6. My quarrel and the English queen's are one.


Now the bright morning star, day's harbinger,

Comes dancing from the East.

8. A man's nature runs either to herbs or weeds; therefore, let him seasonably water the one, and destroy the other.


'Tis all men's office to speak patience

To those that wring under the load of sorrow.


A jest's prosperity lies in the ear

Of him that hears it, never in the tongue

Of him that makes it.

11. No more the juice of Egypt's grape shall moist his lip.


There Shakespeare's self, with every garland crowned,

Flew to those fairy climes his fancy sheen.


What supports me? dost thou ask?

The conscience, Friend, to have lost them [his eyes] overplied

In liberty's defence.


Or where Campania's plain forsaken lies,

A weary waste expanding to the skies.


Nature herself, it seemed, would raise

A minster to her Maker's praise!


69. Parsing a word is putting together all the facts about its form and its relations to other words in the sentence.

In parsing, some idioms-the double possessive, for example-do not come under regular grammatical rules, and are to be spoken of merely as idioms.

70. Hence, in parsing a noun, we state,-

(1) The class to which it belongs,-common, proper, etc.

(2) Whether a neuter or a gen

der noun; if the latter, which gender.

(3) Whether singular or plural number.

(4) Its office in the sentence, determining its case.

The correct method.

71. In parsing any word, the following method should always be followed: tell the facts about what the word does, then make the grammatical statements as to its class, inflections, and relations.


"What is bolder than a miller's neckcloth, which takes a thief by the throat every morning?"

Miller's is a name applied to every individual of its class, hence it is a common noun; it is the name of a male being, hence it is a gender noun, masculine; it denotes only one person, therefore singular number; it expresses possession or ownership, and limits neckcloth, therefore possessive case.

Neckcloth, like miller's, is a common class noun; it has no sex, therefore neuter; names one thing, therefore singular number; subject of the verb is understood, and therefore nominative case.

Thief is a common class noun; the connection shows a male is meant, therefore masculine gender; singular number; object of the verb takes, hence objective case.

Throat is neuter, of the same class and number as the word neckcloth; it is the object of the preposition by, hence it is objective case.

NOTE.-The preposition sometimes takes the possessive case (see Sec. 68).

Morning is like throat and neckcloth as to class, gender, and number; as to case, it expresses time, has no governing word, but is the adverbial objective.


Follow the model above in parsing all the nouns in the following sentences:-

1. To raise a monument to departed worth is to perpetuate virtue.

2. The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident.

3. An old cloak makes a new jerkin; a withered serving man, a fresh tapster.


That in the captain's but a choleric word,

Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.

5. Now, blessings light on him that first invented ... sleep!

6. Necker, financial minister to Louis XVI., and his daughter, Madame de Sta?l, were natives of Geneva.

7. He giveth his beloved sleep.

8. Time makes the worst enemies friends.

9. A few miles from this point, where the Rhone enters the lake, stands the famous Castle of Chillon, connected with the shore by a drawbridge,-palace, castle, and prison, all in one.


Wretches! ye loved her for her wealth,

And hated her for her pride.

11. Mrs. Jarley's back being towards him, the military gentleman shook his forefinger.

* * *


The need of pronouns.

72. When we wish to speak of a name several times in succession, it is clumsy and tiresome to repeat the noun. For instance, instead of saying, "The pupil will succeed in the pupil's efforts if the pupil is ambitious," we improve the sentence by shortening it thus, "The pupil will succeed in his efforts if he is ambitious."

Again, if we wish to know about the ownership of a house, we evidently cannot state the owner's name, but by a question we say, "Whose house is that?" thus placing a word instead of the name till we learn the name.

This is not to be understood as implying that pronouns were invented because nouns were tiresome, since history shows that pronouns are as old as nouns and verbs. The use of pronouns must have sprung up naturally, from a necessity for short, definite, and representative words.


A pronoun is a reference word, standing for a name, or for a person or thing, or for a group of persons or things.

Classes of pronouns.

73. Pronouns may be grouped in five classes:-

(1) Personal pronouns, which distinguish person by their form (Sec. 76).

(2) Interrogative pronouns, which are used to ask questions about persons or things.

(3) Relative pronouns, which relate or refer to a noun, pronoun, or other word or expression, and at the same time connect two statements They are also called conjunctive.

(4) Adjective pronouns, words, primarily adjectives, which are classed as adjectives when they modify nouns, but as pronouns when they stand for nouns.

(5) Indefinite pronouns, which cannot be used as adjectives, but stand for an indefinite number of persons or things.

Numerous examples of all these will be given under the separate classes hereafter treated.


Person in grammar.

74. Since pronouns stand for persons as well as names, they must represent the person talking, the person or thing spoken to, and the person or thing talked about.

This gives rise to a new term, "the distinction of person."

Person of nouns.

75. This distinction was not needed in discussing nouns, as nouns have the same form, whether representing persons and things spoken to or spoken of. It is evident that a noun could not represent the person speaking, even if it had a special form.

From analogy to pronouns, which have forms for person, nouns are sometimes spoken of as first or second person by their use; that is, if they are in apposition with a pronoun of the first or second person, they are said to have person by agreement.

But usually nouns represent something spoken of.

Three persons of pronouns.

76. Pronouns naturally are of three persons:-

(1) First person, representing the person speaking.

(2) Second person, representing a person or thing spoken to.

(3) Third person, standing for a person or thing spoken of.


77. Personal pronouns are inflected thus:-


Singular. Plural.

Nom. I we

Poss. mine, my our, ours

Obj. me us



Old Form Common Form.

Nom. thou you

Poss. thine, thy your, yours

Obj. thee you


Nom. ye you

Poss. your, yours your, yours

Obj. you you



Masc. Fem. Neut..

Nom. he she it

Poss. his her, hers its

Obj. him her it

Plur. of all Three.

Nom. they

Poss. their, theirs

Obj. them

Remarks on These Forms.

First and second persons without gender.

78. It will be noticed that the pronouns of the first and second persons have no forms to distinguish gender. The speaker may be either male or female, or, by personification, neuter; so also with the person or thing spoken to.

Third person singular has gender.

But the third person has, in the singular, a separate form for each gender, and also for the neuter.

Old forms.

In Old English these three were formed from the same root; namely, masculine hē, feminine hēo, neuter hit.

The form hit (for it) is still heard in vulgar English, and hoo (for hēo) in some dialects of England.

The plurals were hī, heora, heom, in Old English; the forms they, their, them, perhaps being from the English demonstrative, though influenced by the cognate Norse forms.

Second person always plural in ordinary English.

79. Thou, thee, etc., are old forms which are now out of use in ordinary speech. The consequence is, that we have no singular pronoun of the second person in ordinary speech or prose, but make the plural you do duty for the singular. We use it with a plural verb always, even when referring to a single object.

Two uses of the old singulars.

80. There are, however, two modern uses of thou, thy, etc.:-

(1) In elevated style, especially in poetry; as,-

With thy clear keen joyance

Languor cannot be;

Shadow of annoyance

Never came near thee;

Thou lovest; but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.


(2) In addressing the Deity, as in prayers, etc.; for example,-

Oh, thou Shepherd of Israel, that didst comfort thy people of old, to thy care we commit the helpless.-Beecher.

The form its.

81. It is worth while to consider the possessive its. This is of comparatively recent growth. The old form was his (from the nominative hit), and this continued in use till the sixteenth century. The transition from the old his to the modern its is shown in these sentences:-

1 He anointed the altar and all his vessels.-Bible

Here his refers to altar, which is a neuter noun. The quotation represents the usage of the early sixteenth century.

2 It's had it head bit off by it young-Shakespeare

Shakespeare uses his, it, and sometimes its, as possessive of it.

In Milton's poetry (seventeenth century) its occurs only three times.

3 See heaven its sparkling portals wide display-Pope

A relic of the olden time.

82. We have an interesting relic in such sentences as this from Thackeray: "One of the ways to know 'em is to watch the scared looks of the ogres' wives and children."

As shown above, the Old English objective was hem (or heom), which was often sounded with the h silent, just as we now say, "I saw 'im yesterday" when the word him is not emphatic. In spoken English, this form 'em has survived side by side with the literary them.

Use of the pronouns in personification.

83. The pronouns he and she are often used in poetry, and sometimes in ordinary speech, to personify objects (Sec. 34).


I The Nominative.

Nominative forms.

84. The nominative forms of personal pronouns have the same uses as the nominative of nouns (see Sec. 58). The case of most of these pronouns can be determined more easily than the case of nouns, for, besides a nominative use, they have a nominative form. The words I, thou, he, she, we, ye, they, are very rarely anything but nominative in literary English, though ye is occasionally used as objective.

Additional nominatives in spoken English.

85. In spoken English, however, there are some others that are added to the list of nominatives: they are, me, him, her, us, them, when they occur in the predicate position. That is, in such a sentence as, "I am sure it was him," the literary language would require he after was; but colloquial English regularly uses as predicate nominatives the forms me, him, her, us, them, though those named in Sec. 84 are always subjects. Yet careful speakers avoid this, and follow the usage of literary English.

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