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Group genitive (not sure of the name)

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Group genitive (not sure of the name)

Postby Brazilian dude » Sat Aug 06, 2005 6:08 pm

This is something I read in the British English book I'm using which I found quite interesting:

I had quite a funny experience just the other day in a small newsagent's near my house. Well, when I say 'funny' it wasn't really funny at all! There were these two youngsters, probably about ten and eleven years old, and while the woman behind the counter's back was turned I saw them taking handfuls of sweets off the shelves and stuffing them into their pockets. I was just about to say something when a couple more customers came in and in the end I didn't say anything. I wish I had now.

When I saw the words in bold, I thought that the woman was behind the counter's back (which I would have referred to as the back of the counter, anyway) and then thought that couldn't be right, it simply wasn't logical. Then it dawned on me that they were talking about a woman behind a counter who had turned her back to the youngsters, which reminded me of something I had read in an old English grammar (written in Portuguese) years before but had actually never encountered in real life: the group genitive (not sure of the name, though. I tried to track the book but was unsuccessful). Once thing I do remember, though, is that the book didn't have a very high opinion of this construction and recommended rephrasing it. Is this a typical British thing or have any of the non-Brits here read/heard this before and how acceptable do you deem it, if acceptable is the right word to use?

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Postby tcward » Sun Aug 07, 2005 12:44 pm

It isn't something you see written very often, because it does lose something without the flow of speech to guide the listener. In daily life, though, you would hear it quite often.

I would have rewritten the phrase, probably to "...and while the woman behind the counter had her back turned..."

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Postby anders » Tue Aug 09, 2005 2:32 pm

It's easier in mathematics:

"(the woman behind the counter)'s back".
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Postby HectorInspector » Tue Aug 16, 2005 3:04 pm

or with compound words [b]woman-behind-the-counter[b]'s back
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Postby English Rose » Fri Aug 26, 2005 11:32 am

Hi folks,
This phrase is very clumsy, and to me, indicates colloquial use. The apostrophe is used correctly, though, which pleases me! :)

The idea of a maths style equation is good, but I beg to differ. It would make better sense as:

the woman (behind the counter)'s back

What d'you think?

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Postby anders » Fri Aug 26, 2005 2:19 pm

Hector, Rose,


English Rose wrote:It would make better sense as:

the woman (behind the counter)'s back

What d'you think?

In a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances and if having redefined brackets, it might work.
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Postby jackquin » Tue Aug 30, 2005 2:20 pm

The entire noun phrase is the possessor, as in The Queen of England's son, the butcher at Alpha Beta's apron. It might lead to stylistic dissonance, but it is grammatically okay, isn't it?
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Postby M. Henri Day » Sat Sep 10, 2005 3:14 pm

Anders (in his first posting on the topic) is certainly right about the syntax, and Tim regarding what to do about phrases of this type....

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Postby Davekent » Fri Apr 14, 2006 9:22 am

It's called a "Saxon Genitive." And it clearly does not work here. . .Mary's merriment, Mike's microhone, and Peter's peter are fine examples.

If people would just read their prose aloud these abominations would be caught before going to print.

The author's genitive of choice should have been the "of-genitive" ...the back of the woman standing behind the counter...
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Postby sluggo » Sat Apr 22, 2006 2:04 am

Davekent wrote:It's called a "Saxon Genitive." And it clearly does not work here. . .Mary's merriment, Mike's microhone, and Peter's peter are fine examples.

Ah, Dave....?

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Postby hotshoe » Sat Apr 22, 2006 11:32 am

I was lost directly after Tim's post. And I think certain of those apostrophe placements are suspect. I could be mistaken . .
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Postby bnjtokyo » Tue Apr 25, 2006 6:26 am

The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al., 1999) refer to this construction as the Group Genitive. It explains

"The genitive suffix is attached to the last word of a genitive phrase. In the majority of cases, the last word is the head of a noun phrase: the prince's brother . . . . When the head of the genitive phrase is followed by a postmodifier, the suffix is attached at the end of the phrase, the so-called group genitive:

"She would be pleased to get back to her mother-in-law's house. (FICT)
I have to accept the clerk of the course'as decision. (NEWS)
The father of five's face was so badly busted he had to be fitted with a metal cage to keep the bones in place until they set (NEWS)"

And other examples. They have examples from news, conversation, fiction and academic writing, but they don't supply frequency notes on this structure. I suspect it is equally (un)common in the UK and the US

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Postby Huia Iesou » Tue Apr 25, 2006 9:20 am

Eeek. I read it as 'the woman standing behind the counter's back was turned'- no indication of which way she was turned.
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Phrasal Affixes

Postby Dr. Goodword » Tue Apr 25, 2006 11:41 am

An interesting thing about language that has been discussed vigorously and heated lin linguistics over the past 10 years or so is the nature of clitics and their relationship to affixes (prefixes and suffixes).

Clitics are unaccented particles that attach themselves to words at the beginning (proclitics) or end of phrases (enclitics) very much like the way affixes attach themselves to words.

The difference is that the semantic scope of a clitic is the entire phrase, not just one word. The scope of the plural -s, as in bag-s is the single word bag. The scope of -s in the woman's bags is only bag; it does not imply more than one woman.

In the phrase my friend from New York's bag, the -'s attributes possession to the entire phrase my friend from New York and the possession is passes on to the head of that phrase, my friend, as Longman's correctly points out. If the possessive -s were a suffix, it would imply that the bag belongs to New York We know that it doesn't, not because we can logically figure that out, but because the grammar of English makes that clear.

The plural -s in English is a suffix; the possessive -s is an enclitic. The so-called infinitive "to" is another one; that is why "want to", "have to", and "going to" contract into wanna, hafta and gonna. This to has no accent normally and attaches to the preceding word. In fact, it may be a suffix by now; clitics often become affixes.

The unclarity of the example under discussion is another matter. Whenever you have a long phrase of any kind, you run the risk of murkiness. However, the scope of the possessive -s is well known and well documented. Avoiding it is virtulaly impossible since it is a legitimate component of English grammar.
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Postby tcward » Tue Apr 25, 2006 3:39 pm

I couldn't have said it... let alone better.

Thanks, Doc!

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