I was reading the Wikipedia article on Animacy and came across something I found to be very interesting:

The higher animacy a referent has, the less preferable it is to use the preposition of for possession, as follows (this can also be interpreted in terms of alienable versus inalienable possession):

My face is correct, while the face of me is not.

The man's face and the face of the man are both correct, and the former is preferred.

The clock's face and the face of the clock are both correct, and the latter is preferred.

It is really interesting to me that there are two different ways of writing the same thing, and the ideal way is based almost entirely on animacy.

Are there any other similar types of characteristics in the English language (where there are multiple ways of writing the same thing, and one becomes more "correct" based on a property of one of the words in the phrase)?

Also, is there a name for this field of study, or available resources for someone interested in learning more about this? I'm interested in this to help teach ESL students different things like this which native speakers innately know (having to do with the structure of a sentence), but don't realize they know.

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    It's called Linguistics. And most ESL teachers study it at some time. Jan 24, 2014 at 3:25
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    Hi! Welcome to the site. The reasons why we pick a certain construction over an equivalent in certain situations are indeed very interesting. One thing to consider here is that the construction of mine, of my father's, of his normally makes of me, of my father, of him impossible when it is supposed to express possession. This is not the case with *of the man's or *of the clock's, so your first category is not entirely comparable with the other two. There are also some other factors, so it's very complicated. Jan 24, 2014 at 3:32
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    It's what most of syntax is about. See, for instance, Beth Levin's English Verb Classes and Alternations or Postal's On Raising. Jan 24, 2014 at 4:30
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    @JohnLawler "It's called Linguistics." You might win a prize for the most said with the least words. Jan 24, 2014 at 5:25
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    @TimLymington: things get confusing for people if on "a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts." a linguistic question is considered off-topic...
    – oerkelens
    Feb 4, 2014 at 14:22

2 Answers 2


Passives and pseudopassives are also sensitive to animacy.

For passives, consider a situation in which a man walking his dog is killed. If the killing is by a gunman (animate), then you can imagine, say, a newsreader opening a report on the killing with either of the following:

A man walking his dog has been killed by gunman ...

A gunman has killed a man walking his dog ...

If, however, the man was run down by a bus, the passive is strongly preferable:

A man walking his dog has been killed by a bus ...

?? A bus has killed a man walking his dog ...

Pseudopassives are passives of verbs that take a prepositional complement, but not a true direct object. To see the role that animacy plays in pseudopassives, consider:

Napoleon slept in this bed

The arrow quivered in his chest

The first of these, with an animate subject, completely straightforwardly admits passivization of the verb:

This bed was slept in by Napoleon.

The second, with an inanimate subject, does not:

?? His chest was quivered in by the arrow.

A more minimal pair, highlighting the role of animacy, is:

A bird/book flew across the room

The room was flown across by a bird/??book

An animate flyer (bird) permits the verb to undergo pseudopassivization, but an inanimate one (book) does not.


Yes. That's why we tend to say the fly is on the wall, rather than the wall is supporting the fly. I wrote a piece about this recently which you can read here.

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