Adpositions and Possession

Where certain language universals are concerned, English is a little odd. It is said that in a language with prepositions, the possessor follows the possessed in a genitive construction. English certainly has prepositions, and it also has this sort of genitive (i.e. "the home of Steve Allen"). However, English also has another sort of genitive construction where the participants occur in the reverse order (i.e. "Steve Allen's home"). Perhaps it's no coincidence that English also has a handful of postpositions then, as shown in the following examples:

  1. two hours ago
  2. five inches apart
  3. 20 feet away
  4. a few miles back
  5. from the 1950s on

That last example even has a preposition thrown in there too! (So is it a prepositional phrase embedded in a postpositional phrase or the other way around?) In any case, it's clear that English has both of the two logically possible types of genitive constructions. That said, these two constructions are not always completely interchangeable.

  1. the leg of the table
  2. the table's leg
  3. the dog of my friend
  4. my friend's dog

While all of the above phrases are grammatically acceptable, the first and last sound more natural than the middle two. The cleanest generalization seems to be that the possessor-first construction (shown in examples 7 and 9 above) is the more common form for animate possessors such as people and animals, and the possessor-last genitive is more for inanimate possessors (such as "the table" above). Given that an animal is animate, but its meat is not, consider how the following phrases differ in meaning.

  1. a leg of lamb
  2. a lamb's leg

This distinction borders on splitting hairs, which is why it presents so much trouble to ESOL learners. It's much easier for a native speaker of English to learn possessives in Spanish (with prepositions and a possessor-last genitive) or in Japanese (with postpositions and a possessor-first genitive) than it is for native speakers of these languages to learn to use both genitive constructions of English correctly. How lucky to grow up speaking such an odd language natively!

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