Which inanimate nouns, if any, can be made possessive by adding ’s?
The opinions on this question vary widely, ranging from a belief that virtually any inanimate noun may take an ’s to the view that few, if any, ever should.
At one end of the spectrum, William Follett claims in Modern American Usage that an “ancestral rule . . . reserves . . . ’s for ownership by a person” (254), while at the other end, Marjorie E. Skillin and colleagues argue that using ’s with an inanimate noun is only awkward on “rare occasions” (358).
Other authorities on grammar and style land in the middle of these two extremes.
The authors of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, for instance, believe that many inanimate nouns can take ’s, but instead of articulating an underlying principle, they provide a definitive list of the kinds of nouns that may take the possessive ’s: geographic names, locative nouns (which denote “regions, institutions, heavenly bodies, etc.”), temporal nouns, and other nouns “of special relevance to human activity” (e.g., “brain,” “body,” “freedom,” “science,” and “love” [Quirk et al. 324]).
In contrast, Garner’s Modern American Usage lays out a single commonsense principle that writers can use to decide for themselves whether an inanimate noun should take a possessive ’s. The author, Bryan A. Garner, maintains that the possessive ’s may be used with inanimate nouns “whenever it’s not a violation of idiom” (646). For instance, one would not write “the bed’s foot,” because “the foot of the bed” is an idiom—that is, a set phrase—so the version with the ’s sounds like a mistake. Indeed, Garner argues that when the possessive ’s does not violate an idiom, it is “preferable”—presumably, though he does not spell this out, because it makes writing more concise, avoiding unnecessary “of” phrases. As examples of possessives that work better with ’s, he offers “the book’s title,” “the envelope’s contents,” and “the earth’s surface.”
Ultimately, then, writers may choose to adopt an approach laid out in one of these guides, or in one of the many others like them. Or, with experience, they may develop their own set of guiding principles. I, for one, find Garner’s guidance clear and helpful—and yet flexible enough to allow me to follow my own intuition. To my eye, “the envelope’s contents” looks weirdly compressed, like the words on a soda can that’s been partially crushed.
The question of inanimate nouns and the possessive ’s is a good reminder that—as with so many questions of style—writers must eventually learn not only to follow the lead of grammarians and style experts but also to trust their own instincts.
Follett, William. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Edited and completed by Jacques Barzun, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966.
Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. 3rd edition, Oxford UP, 2009.
Quirk, Randolph, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1985.
Skillin, Marjorie E., et al. Words into Type. 3rd ed., Prentice-Hall, 1974.