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Is using the possessive 's correct in “the car's antenna”?

If someone owns something I would say: Mom's car.

But if the owner is not a person, does it actually own it according to English rules or common usage? Which phrase is right?

  • The house windows.
  • The house's windows.
  • The windows of the house. (Or something like that.)

(Feel free to modify this question so it would be clear for other people.)

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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Mar 9 '11 at 16:48

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The second and third phrases are correct:

The house's windows
The windows of the house

There is no requirement in the English language that possessors be people, and it's extremely common for inanimate objects to be used with the possessive 's. There is very little difference between the version that uses 's and the version that uses of.

Related: Is using the possessive "'s" correct in "the car's antenna"?

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It surprises me that this misconception (that possessors must be people) is so widespread. Where did it come from, I wonder? –  Kosmonaut Dec 13 '10 at 20:26
@Kosmonaut, I've wondered the same thing. It could be a zombie rule promulgated by prescriptivists, or bad second-language teaching materials, or maybe interference from the native language. The fact that most askers appear to be ESL speakers makes me think it's a combination of the latter two. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 13 '10 at 20:29
I've noticed a similar reluctance to use the word "whose" for inanimate objects. For example, "A house whose windows were broken". This is more understandable since "whose" is another form of "who". But there is no alternative word for inanimate objects in this case, so "whose" is considered correct by most authorities, including Shakespeare and Milton.. –  Mitch Schwartz Dec 14 '10 at 10:56
@Kosmonaut Fowler would have said quite strongly that you couldn't do it. See my answer on the question this was closed in favour of. –  Jon Hanna Jan 16 '13 at 20:24

House windows is a compound noun with windows modified by house. The modifier tells us what kind of windows these are, so house windows are different from car windows.

House's windows and windows of the house can both be used to refer to windows that are part of the house, though some authors consider it bad form to use the former.

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"House windows" does not have the same meaning as "house's windows", though they overlap. "House windows" uses house as a noun adjunct so that house is treated as an adjective describing the windows (they are house windows, not church windows). "House's windows" uses the genitive case to express the relationship between the windows and a particular house (they are that house's windows, they are not any other house's windows). –  Jon Hanna Jan 16 '13 at 17:53
And there is a move towards dropping the apostrophe when there is an association rather than a true possession involved: We bought our children's clothing from the childrens clothing department at Tuscos. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '13 at 19:33
@EdwinAshworth considering the apostrophe started as an e, it's like it's wasting away! –  Jon Hanna Jan 16 '13 at 20:25

I'll start by saying that I've seen several heated debates about this online, but the general consensus is that this rule is one of those stylistic ones that someone created that has gotten passed around by some as an actual grammatical requirement. In practice, inanimate objects are quite frequently used with 's. So both of the following are correct:

The house's windows

The windows of the house

If you (or your supervisor/professor/etc.) prefer the second stylistically, that's fine but it's not an actual grammatical rule.

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