Is the act of possessing an example of personification if attributed to inanimate objects? Here, "possession" means the possession of physical things as well as the possession of virtues or qualities by any inanimate object.

For example, is the sentence "The book's cover is pretty old." an example of personification? (I am unsure whether the apostrophe usage in case of inanimate objects is grammatically correct.) Possession, according to me, is as much a human quality as it is a natural phenomenon (natural as in applicable to all objects). This should mean that inanimate objects can possess things and qualities without being personified.

A related question is, if we ascribe the 'action' of possessing to a synecdochic reference to a human, will that be an instance of personification, now that the object to which the possession is attributed is not technically speaking, inanimate? For example, "His stomach's capacity is exhausted." or "The last remaining relic of his brain's prowess was steadily depleting."

  • Essentially, you're confusing ownership (which requires having a legal or at least moral right to . . .) with the broader concept possession: 'the Johnston House possesses/has many of the decorative features that identify it . . .' // *'the Johnston House owns many of the decorative features that identify it . . .' (but I own/have/possess a car). Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 8:34
  • @Edwin: It's worse that that! There really isn't the slightest element of "possession" when we say something like "It's all in a day's work" Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 14:25
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    'A day's work contains / has all of those elements.' Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 18:00

4 Answers 4


personification - A trope or figure of speech (generally considered a type of metaphor) in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities.

English possessive - Nouns ... form a possessive with the suffix -'s ... sometimes called the Saxon genitive, reflecting the suffix's derivation from a genitive case ending in Old English.

genitive (also called the possessive or second case) - the grammatical case that marks a noun as modifying another noun. It often marks a noun as being the possessor of another noun; however, it can also indicate various other relationships than possession.

It would be ridiculous to say that when we refer to the river's edge, for example, we're assigning human qualities to the river just because it can have an edge. And with, say, a day's work, it's hardly even possible to think of the day as "having" work. The possessive apostrophe doesn't necessarily imply "ownership" - often it just denotes some kind of association.

OP's "related" question presupposes the false idea that possessive apostrophe = personification.

  • The OP's argument seems to be that river's edge is 'unnatural' or not quite logical compared to edge of the river, except in case where the river is a personification.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 5:57
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    @Kris: Well, my link for river's edge is to over 2M written instances, so I think it's not unreasonable to say that OP's "argument" is completely at odds with normal use of English. The fact of the matter is the apostrophe denotes association, and ownership is simply one type of association. OP is just being misled because it's sometimes called the "possessive apostrophe" - which is only meaningful for some usages. Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 14:09
  • Yes. I said essentially the same thing in my answer, as well.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 14:14
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    +1, and even more so for your follow-up comment than the actual answer. I would certainly go further that one additional step. OP is simply confused by the name "possessive apostrophe". He should call it a "case marker" instead, which it is, and all confusion will immediately disappear. It is not about semantics, it is about grammar. Just like not every instance of the accusative is about accusing, and not every instance of the dative is about giving, and not every instance of the instrumentalis is about instrumenting. These are all just labels, because you have to label things something.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 14:48

The apostrophe functions in many diverse ways including pure possessive derivation. As such, the apostrophe is not longer one of the suspects in the case.

Now for the concept of possession itself, there is a difference between 'ownership' and 'attribute'. At that point, things get rather fuzzy and opinion-based as to whether an inanimate object 'owns' or is 'attributed with' something in a given case.

The English language follows a slightly different set of criteria that's simpler and manageable.

The Blue Book can suggest a 'personification,' owing to its 'attribute' (adjective, blue), but only in a literary/ idiomatic sense.

It is true that in most common contexts, the apostrophe sometimes seems 'unnatural' when used with an inanimate object. However, such use by itself does not bring about a personification of the object.

  • can you elaborate(by giving examples)on the difference between ownership and attribute)?
    – Argot
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 8:44

The Collins entry for the senses of 'belong' (/with; /to etc) covers a lot of senses, one the personal ownership sense; an extended one the sense of 'ownership by a society' (which probably does involve a type of personification); but others connoting no personification:

(3) (foll by: to, under, with, etc) to be classified (with): this plant belongs to the daisy family.

(4) (foll by to) to be a part or adjunct (of): this top belongs to the smaller box.

The derivation of the word seems to be traceable back to 'to depend on / reach', which would seem not to connote a personal tie-in per se.

'Possess' and 'belong to' are antonymous in most senses, though 'include' is preferred for sense (3) and simply 'have' for sense (4) above.

The apostrophe was once used to indicate omission even in the possessive usage:

John's book <==> John, his book

the book's cover <==> the book; its cover

Interestingly, there is a move to drop the apostrophe not from 'non-personal' usages but from non-possessive usages (some people recommend it be dropped altogether!):

We bought the children's clothing from the childrens clothing department here.

The dogs' home is, by coincidence, just round the corner from the Accrington Dogs Home.

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    You make the question complex...I understood the question , but not your answer.
    – Argot
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 8:19
  • Good points, all. Those little upper squiggles, those uncouth bacilli! nytimes.com/2011/02/22/nyregion/22nyc.html?_r=0
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 14:25

For the answer to your latter question, "his stomach's capacity is exhausted" is not a synecdoche.(stomach does not mean "a person" in this context, stomach means "stomach").If stomach was an inanimate object(i am fairly sure it is),what do you think is personified here , are their any human like qualities attributed to stomach ? No.

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    You say 'stomach is not an inanimate object' with no supporting quotes. Wiki Answers has: ' _"Is a body part considered an inanimate object for the purposes of a writing assignment on personification?" _"This question has not been answered yet." ' Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 9:26
  • It is obvious its not inanimate , it has " life " , I think if the stomach was of " a dead person" , it would be inanimate .( ask people who do post-mortem if you can't believe me )
    – Argot
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 9:29
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    It's far from obvious. One definition of 'animate' (deriving directly from the Latin [Collins: C16: from Latin animāre to fill with breath, make alive, from anima breath, spirit] is 'endowed with feeling and unstructured consciousness' [WordNet; Farlex]: true of a live animal, but not of its stomach. And which sense of 'animate' is used is obviously crucial when considering personality. Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 9:37
  • That was a hyperbole ,I thought it would just work on you. But people can make wrong definitions , people can make mistakes , people is why economics is not a science but "social science",people are not infallible.( i can't be more verbose)
    – Argot
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 9:39

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