Stop calling possessives 'possessive'

For accuracy's sake, perhaps we should call them 'connectives' instead

One of the great questions of American life comes up whenever we have a day in celebration of mothers, fathers, presidents, or veterans: Where do you stick the apostrophe? Should there even be an apostrophe?

Someone on your Facebook is bound to inform you that it should be Fathers Day, or Mothers Day, or Presidents Day, because the fathers, mothers, and presidents don't own the day — it's just a day for them. So don't use the possessive! Ditch that apostrophe! With Veterans Day, the matter is already settled: It officially doesn't have an apostrophe. (We could make this all easier if we got rid of apostrophes altogether, but last time I suggested that, people got upset.)

And so we run up against one of the more badly misnamed things in English grammar: the possessive. Yes, yes, it's true, we do use it to indicate possession: John's chair, Mary's house, Donald's book, Miley's wrecking ball. But that's not all we use it for, and we shouldn't deceive ourselves by calling it the possessive. We actually use it to indicate several different kinds of connection. Maybe we should call it the connective.

I'll give some examples. To start with, let's look a second time at Miley's wrecking ball (I mean the phrase; you don't have to watch the video again). What do you suppose are the odds that she personally owns the ball? More likely the studio who made the video, no? When she was riding on it, was she possessing it at all? Occupying it, sure, but she didn't have it in her pocket. Actually she didn't have a pocket to put it in. She couldn't have walked off with it. But she was connected with it. For three and a half minutes, at least.

That's like John's chair. Say you're at a poker game and you're waiting for John to arrive. It's at Mary's house and he's never been there (that's why he's late). You're keeping a specific chair empty for him (the one not too close to the snacks, because of that time when… never mind). Someone goes to sit in it. "Don't sit there," you say, "that's John's chair." Does this mean that John, who has never even seen this chair (and who, in fact, having lost his way, will end up at Denny's and then go home), is possessing it? Even when Jeff goes and sits in it anyway? ("That was John's chair but Jeff sat in it.")

Oh, and the chair is in Mary's house, but Mary still lives with her parents (they're on vacation right now). The house isn't for her (unlike John's chair); she isn't the sole occupant of it (unlike Miley's wrecking ball); she doesn't own it; in fact, at the moment she's away on vacation too (no one tell her about the poker game, OK? She left the key with her boyfriend). And yet it's her house, even though she's not the house's owner. Wait — a house can't possess its owner! And yet we use the "possessive."

Then there's Donald's book. I don't have a copy of it; maybe you do. He doesn't possess your copy if you have one. He just wrote it. Well, he probably got someone to ghostwrite it for him. I'm not sure Donald has ever done a real day's work. But anyways, if you have a copy, it's your book, but it's still Donald's book.

Oh, and a real day's work? The work of a day, yes? Is the work possessed by the day? Of course, it's a night's work if you work nights, but…

Work nights. That gets us to the root of this. That s on nights is actually a survival of the Old English genitive, which is where our modern "possessive" comes from. We see it also on words such as besides, backwards, anyways (that's not a plural s), and so on — and of course we see it in our modern "possessive," which has had an apostrophe added by mistake.

The genitive sometimes indicated possession, but sometimes other kinds of association: to mean "eager for a fight" in Old English, you might say þæs gefeohtes georn, "the fight's eager." But the genitive was always marked directly on the noun (and adjectives, definite articles, et cetera), whereas our modern "possessive" can attach to a whole phrase: We don't say "the lady's you were talking to friend," we say "the lady you were talking to's friend." (We might do better to treat it as a separate word, in fact.)

So we see that the English "possessive" is and always has been a marker of several kinds of connection, not just possession. The objects may or may not be friends or followers, but they're connections of some sort. It's more like LinkedIn than Facebook or Twitter.

But we can still sidestep the issue and call it Veterans Day, right? Sure we can… if you don't mind that you're helping change English grammar.

We justify calling it Veterans Day by saying that Veterans is an attributive noun — a noun used unchanged as an adjective. Fair enough; we use attributive nouns quite a lot in English: four-door sedan, flower pot, employee vacation day arbitration, and so on. But when we do that, we normally use the singular: four-door sedan, not four-doors sedan; flower pot, never flowers pot no matter how many flowers are in it. We will say vacation day arbitration even if there are several days at stake.

However, sometimes plurals on attributive nouns are necessary for clarity, and we are getting more comfortable with them — you may sometimes see vacation days arbitration. But sometimes what we think are plurals are really the same connective s, just without the apostrophe: You may write girls volleyball team, but would you write women volleyball team instead of women's volleyball team? Can you picture yourself watching the Roses Bowl Parade?

Perhaps at some future time Roses Bowl will seem as natural as Rose Bowl does to us now. But when you write Veterans Day you really are participating in a gradual change in English grammar. These things happen, of course, but they at least ought to happen for valid reasons. Possession may, as the old saying puts it, be nine points in the law, but it isn't always the point of the apostrophe-s. But connection is.

(By the way: Officially, it's Father's Day and Mother's Day, meant for each one individually. Presidents Day is the Associated Press preferred spelling, but the holiday's official name is still Washington's Birthday… not Washington Birthday.)


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