Let’s Stop Talking about Possessives

Every American should know the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem:

Oh, say, can you see
By the Dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming?

But wait a minute! Because dawn isn’t a person, it can’t own the “early light.” For the same reason, twilight can’t own the “last gleaming.”

Did Francis Scott Key screw up our national anthem?

Of course not. You might have been told you can’t use an apostrophe + s construction unless the owner is human. You can’t say “the dog’s collar” or “the tree’s leaves” or “the song’s lyrics.”

But that’s a bogus rule made up by people who should know better.

How did this mistake get started? Here’s what probably happened. Grammarians often talk about possessives (“Joe’s shoes”). It wasn’t long before some self-appointed grammarians decided that only people can have possessions.

Teachers and editors latched on to that made-up rule, and that opened the door to all kinds of clumsiness: “the collar of the dog” instead of “the dog’s collar” – and so on.

When you stop to think about it, many possessive constructions don’t involve ownership at all. A teacher’s desk is one example. Every classroom I used in my 40-year teaching career had a desk for the teacher (me). I didn’t own it, of course. I couldn’t take it home. But it was still the teacher’s desk.

I want to make two points today.

1. We need to stop talking about “possessives.” When I was teaching, the term I used was “of expressions.”

2. Some apostrophes are disappearing. The Associated Press has dropped the apostrophe from Veterans Day (which used to be Veterans’ Day – the day of the veterans). I often see signs like “Doctors Lounge” and “Judges Entrance.”

James Harbeck has some interesting observations about “of” constructions at this link: https://theweek.com/articles/564165/stop-calling-possessives-possessive


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