English Usage Topics > Possession and Other Relationships
Possession and Other Relationships
This entry explains how to show that something belongs to or is related to something else.
There are six basic ways of doing this:
- Using a possessive determiner such as my or their in front of the main noun
- Adding apostrophe s ('s) to the end of a noun and putting it in front of the main noun
- Using the preposition of after the main noun
- Using another preposition after the main noun
- Using a noun modifier in front of the main noun
- Using an adjective in front of the main noun
An apostrophe ('), not 's, is added to plural nouns ending in `s'.
A noun modifier is a noun that is used in front of another noun. It is nearly always singular.
Something belonging to a person
If you want to say who something belongs to or is associated with, you can use a possessive determiner. If you are using a short noun phrase to refer to the person, you add 's to the noun phrase and put it in front of the main noun. If you are using a long noun phrase, you put of in front of it and put it after the main noun.
...a woman's voice.
...Mr Heseltine's views.
...the son of the chairman of Prudential Insurance.
...the dog of the strange man next door.
Quality possessed by a person
If you are referring to a quality possessed by a particular person or animal, you use a possessive determiner, 's, or of.
...the woman's abruptness.
...the zeal and courage of the workers.
Quality possessed by a thing
If you are referring to a quality possessed by a particular thing, you use of or a possessive determiner. People sometimes also use 's.
...the efficiency of the teaching processes.
...the speed of the car travelling in front.
...the plane's speed.
Something associated with a thing
If you want to show that something is associated with an object or with an abstract thing, you use of or a possessive determiner.
...the design of the engine.
...the impact of inflation.
People sometime use 's when showing association with an object.
...the car's location.
Part of a person or animal
If you are referring to part of a person or animal, you use a possessive determiner or 's with a short noun phrase, and of with a long noun phrase.
...a hummingbird's wings.
...the bare feet of the young girls.
In the case of an animal, you can also use of with a short noun phrase beginning with a.
...the wings of a humming-bird.
Part of a thing
If you are referring to part of a thing, you generally use of. You always use of with words like top, middle, and end.
...the top of the hill.
...the leg of the chair.
If you are referring to one of the parts that an object consists of, you can sometimes also use 's or a possessive determiner.
...the car's engine.
If the part is considered to be a type of thing, you use a noun modifier.
...the kitchen floor.
...a car door.
Action done by a person or thing
If you are referring to an action done by a particular person or thing, you can use a possessive determiner or 's.
...Mr Lawson's resignation.
...the Government's refusal to increase its pay offer.
You can also use of in front of a noun phrase referring to the person or thing that performs an action. This is done especially when the noun phrase is a long one.
...the death of a prisoner last December.
...the arrival of powerful processing computers.
...the refusal of certain large grain suppliers to continue supplies until they are paid.
You can also use by when mentioning an action that affects someone or something else.
...the rejection of pay offers of up to 7.8 per cent by union leaders.
...the defeat of James II by William III.
Something done to a person
If you are referring to something that is done to a particular person, you use a possessive determiner or 's. You can also use of, especially for longer noun phrases or when the agent is mentioned too.
...his appointment as managing director.
...Agassi's last defeat.
...England's defeat of the West Indies.
Similarly, if you are referring to someone who does something to a person, or has a particular attitude towards them, you can use a possessive determiner, 's, or of.
...the Prime Minister's supporters.
...supporters of Dr Eames.
If you are referring to a type of action or person that affects people of a particular kind, you use a noun modifier.
Something done to a thing
If you are referring to something that is done to a particular thing, you use of.
...his handling of the economy.
...the introduction of new crops.
...the creation of a modern banking system.
However, if you are referring to a person who does something to a particular thing, you can use a possessive determiner, 's, or of.
...the ship's owner.
...the owner of the house rented by the family.
If you are referring to a type of action or person that affects things of a particular kind, you use a noun modifier.
However, you can also sometimes use of.
...the prevention of accidents.
...owners of hotels and guest houses.
...lovers of poetry.
Person or thing from a particular place
If you want to show what place a particular person or thing comes from or is associated with:
You add 's to general nouns like city and country
...the country's roads.
...the city's population.
...the world's finest wines.
You use an adjective showing a particular country (or occasionally a state or city)
...an Australian film.
...a strong Glaswegian accent.
You use the name of a county or town (or occasionally country) as a noun modifier
...a London hotel.
...a Yorkshire chemist.
...the New Zealand government.
You use a preposition such as in or from. In is used especially after a superlative has been used.
...the largest department store in the world.
...students from Britain.
Person who controls something
If you want to indicate the country or organization that someone controls, you use of.
...the President of Iceland.
...the head of the Secret Service.
Reporters and broadcasters also use an adjective or noun modifier, or 's.
...the Nicaraguan President.
...the CBI President.
Person or thing of a particular type
If you want to show what a type of thing or person is suitable for or connected with, you can use a noun modifier.
...a milk bottle.
If an appropriate adjective exists, you can use that adjective, especially in formal or technical contexts.
...a political analyst.
You may also be able to use an appropriate preposition.
...a degree in Classics.
...a book on Chinese regional cookery.
There are sometimes two ways of referring to something. For example, you can talk about a heart attack (using a noun modifier) or, in formal or medical contexts, a cardiac arrest (using an adjective). You can talk about a History degree (using a noun modifier) or a degree in History (using a preposition).
You use 's to show that a type of thing is suitable for or used by a type of person.
...a man's black suit.
...a knight's helmet.
When you are talking about a number of things that are suitable for a particular type of person, you usually make the noun with 's plural. For example, you talk about children's shoes, not `child's shoes'.
You also make the noun with 's plural when referring to a type of thing that is used by more than one person.
...a men's prison.
...a children's book.
You also use 's when referring to a type of thing that is produced by a type of animal. Whether you use a determiner or not depends on the main noun, not the noun with 's. For example, you don't need to use a determiner with an uncountable noun such as milk.
...a hen's egg.
Object made of a particular material
If you want to say what something is made of, you usually use a noun modifier. Sometimes there is an adjective you can use.
...a plastic bucket.
...a wooden spoon.
Quantity of a substance
If you want to say how much of a substance there is, or what shape it is, you use of.
...a bottle of milk.
...a kilo of fruit.
...a drop of blood.
When you want to refer to a full container, or to its contents, you must use of. For example, you would buy or eat a packet of cereal. When you want to refer just to a container, especially an empty one, you use a noun modifier, as in a cereal packet.
Occasionally, you can use a noun modifier with words showing the shape of a quantity of a substance.
...a wax block.
...an ice cube.
Person with a particular job
If you want to show what job someone does as well as the relationship they have with someone, you can use a noun modifier.
...her soldier husband.
...my geologist friend.
You can also put another noun phrase after the main noun and a comma.
...his friend, a football player.
Something that lasts a particular time
If you want to show that something lasts a particular length of time, you use 's in front of uncountable nouns and a noun modifier in front of countable nouns. The noun modifier is usually hyphenated.
...two years' imprisonment.
...a two-year course.
When you are talking about something that lasts one week, one month, or one year, you can use a noun modifier with one. You can also use week-long, month-long, or year-long, which emphasizes the length of time.
...a one-year contract.
...a year-long experiment.
If you are talking about an amount, you use 's.
...a year's supply of cat food.
...a month's salary.
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