My colleagues are in the design department of a given product, and when asked to add that information to the e-mail signature, they have written:

ProductName's Design

I'm objecting that the usage of the Saxon genitive there is incorrect, because the product is neither a person or animal owning anything, and Design in this context is not even a property of the product (Maybe I would admit the Saxon genitive in a context like "I think ProductName's design is not fail-safe"), but an activity.

Am I right? ^_^


After reading the answers and the comments, I think the issue has been clarified a little bit. In this case ProductName is acting as an adjective qualifying Design [Department], so that's the actual reason for not using the genitive case (rather than the product being a "weak entity" unable to possess things, that is merely an stylistic rule of thumb).

  • Related.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 16:25
  • 1
    Duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/6735/… Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 16:30
  • Also, this is the first time I've ever heard this construction called the "Saxon genitive". Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 16:34
  • 5
    I disagree that this is a duplicate: the answer to the suggested duplicate questions is "Yes, apostrophe-s use for inanimate objects is fine", whereas as Cerberus has described in his answer, the answer to this question is "Apostrophe-s use here is not appropriate, but not because it's applied to an inanimate object".
    – psmears
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 17:47
  • @JSBangs: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxon_genitive ; the article "Possessive 's" redirects to "Saxon genitive" (I didn't do it...). I have heard both variants, though I agree that possessive 's is the more frequent term. Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 18:16

4 Answers 4


While the possessive 's and whose can be used with inanimate objects in many cases, this does not apply to any context. The product feels a bit too much like a person or a topic/theme here if used with the possessive 's; a noun adjective would seem more appropriate. I'd prefer something like this:

Supershaver Design Department

If the name of this product is also the name of the company, as with Skype, you could do it like this:

Skype, Design Department

If your company is a design company and this ProductName is not really the name of a product but exclusively the name of either the company or its founder, you could write it like this:

Killer Design


Obama Design


Use of the genitive for inanimate objects is not considered a fault. There are occasional suggestions that it's loose usage, but these are usually very old, prescriptive guides that do not reflect modern usage. For example:

The car's design is woefully dated.

Completely standard in all registers.

  • 1
    Note that the OP admits that this usage is fine; his problem is with using a genitive when he would expect an adjective.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 16:24

In this case, "design" is a noun, and thus is a property of ProductName. In general, if you can say "the design of ProductName", you can also say "ProductName's design". Which you pick will depend on context and personal preferences - each is equally correct, but one may sound (and indeed look) better than the other in certain circumstances.

Note that the rules governing case are purely syntactic, and apply equally to animate and inanimate objects.

  • 1
    I think you may have misinterpreted the usage of 's in the original question. @fortran is claiming that it is incorrect to call a department "ProductName's Design" and would be more correct if changed to something like "ProductName Design [Department]".
    – oosterwal
    Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 0:12
  • 2
    Ah, yes, I think I must have misinterpreted the question. Yes, indeed, for a department name, the form with the 's looks strange.
    – D_Bye
    Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 9:16

Once I began to study French seriously, I ceased using genitives because I felt it was inelegant and very informal. I would prefer to rewrite a sentence than to use an apostrophe. But, I agree with The Raven in that it is essentially standard, and a matter of preference.

  • 4
    Using an apostrophe-s possessive is not only essentially standard, it is completely standard, and in no way informal: it is completely appropriate even in the most formal of contexts. You are free to avoid it, but that is a very strange thing to do (English is not French :-).
    – psmears
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 17:41
  • The "Saxon" part of "Saxon genitive" suggests that the construct is of Germanic origin. My reference to French was intended to provide the perspective of another language family.
    – HaL
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 21:22
  • 2
    OK - but it's a very strange thing to do to take rules/structures from one language and apply them to another. Do you avoid phrasal verbs and the continuous past/present too, because French doesn't have them? ;-)
    – psmears
    Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 6:25

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