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Is there a definite rule about the use of articles with the possessive nouns in the plural? One rule says that the article in such a phrase modifies the possessive noun. So, it is correct to say "Peter's book' (not 'the Peter's book") because we do not say 'the Peter'. According to the same rule it's possible to say 'a cat's whiskers' because the article belongs to the word 'cat', not 'whiskers'.

But I've come across the following examples: 'a women's magazine'; 'a wolves' den'; 'a girls' school' and I realize that the article does not belong to the possessive noun any more. It modifies the 'head'-word like in all ordinary noun phrases as 'an interesting magazine' or 'a prestigious school'. My head is broken, please, help!

  • I'm pretty sure your list of confusing words in the second sentence are adjective phrases. The book belongs to Peter and the whiskers belong to the cat. However, the magazine doesn't belong to women, the magazine is for women. The den doesn't belong to wolves, the wolves describe the type of den. The school doesn't belong to girls, girls are the only attendees. – VampDuc Nov 4 '15 at 18:18
  • See The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pages 467-470, especially the section on "attributive genitives". – snailboat Nov 4 '15 at 21:19
  • @snailboat: why don't you post a summary of what it says in an answer here? – sumelic Nov 14 '15 at 12:13
  • It seems to me that context can determine which noun an article applies to. Consider "The girls' school is up the hill." If I'm discussing my neighbour's two daughters "the" refers to the girls. If I'm discussing a specific school that is only for girls, "the" refers to the school. – Al Maki Jan 21 '16 at 17:16
  • Which article should we use in this sentence: These are ... cat's whiskers. Imagine the situation when a little girl and her mom are looking at the picture of an ordinary cat and the mother is givining names to different parts of the cat's body. – Natalia Jan 23 '16 at 9:07
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Possessive case denotes:

°possession : Peter's book/a cat's whiskers

°authorship : Bacon's essays

° Relationship : a wolf's den; a girls'
school

In addition, we have to remember the concept of compound word, proper noun, common noun and by using possessive case who gains predominance.

Now coming to the examples: Peter's book — no article(proper noun)

A cat's whiskers — article (common noun)

A women's magazine— article (compound word ;common noun)

A wolves' den, a girls' school are compound nouns in addition to being in possessive case; they refer to neither of the two words but to new words( new concept).Let they be viewed in this light.

But in an ' interesting magazine' or a 'prestigious school'— these are mere nouns with adjectivals.

GET RID OF HEAD WORD CONCEPT. THIS IS AT THE ROOT OF ALL THE TROUBLE.


This rejoinder is by way of an explanation of my submission above.

At the outset we like to mention the most important and most comprehensive principle of English syntax : words relate according to sense. This is at the core of all the rules of construction including that of use of articles before possessive.

All determiners (articles/possessives/numerics/demonstratives etc.) are essentially adjectives. This may sound over simplification but it is actually so. We name them differently because their functions are different.

Articles relate to the noun which they limit. It is an index pointing to that noun. An article precedes the noun and when an adjective (here possessive) precedes the noun, the article goes before the possessive and the article's power of limitation may extend over the possessive as well. Article together with the possessive becomes the governing word of the noun governed.

As a general rule before nouns in possessive case we don't use "the" if the noun does not take "the" under normal situation and we must remember that article " the " agrees with nouns in either number. Equally important is to remember that articles are used in the same way before possessive as before any noun that don't have an 's. However, the conjoined concept of article along with possessive may not be lost sight of.

To sum up, possessive nouns are also determiners; like articles they mark nouns; when they are together, their togetherness impacts the noun governed; possessive nouns differ from other determiners in the sense that they themselves often require determiners(articles are one as such). The examples are not analyzed again to avoid repetitions.

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    I don't think there is any useful information in this answer. -1 – Colin Fine Nov 5 '15 at 14:05
  • @ColinFine That's the first time that I've seen an answer downvoted for not giving a useful answer. There are tens of thousands of answers on here that aren't useful. It makes me wonder why this particular answer got your goat? Your reason seems to be disingenuous. – Araucaria Mar 17 '16 at 1:54
  • @Aracaria thank you for your kindness and acute power of observations but for which this site is outstanding in the anonymity of so-many-Tom-Dick-Harry in the Internet. I am equally indebted to Colin Fine. From the distance of humility to his profound knowledge, I must admit that had he not cudgeled my casual answer, there might not be the rejoinder in the edited portion of my answer (necessitated a bit of research as well!) to get the answer approved. – Barid Baran Acharya Mar 17 '16 at 7:42
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The article a always applies to a singular noun, and is an indefinite article (the referent is unspecified). The word cat's is not plural, it is singular possessive. Rephrase the phrases to see what can apply:

Peter's book --> The book of Peter

A cat's whiskers --> The whiskers of a cat

A cat's whisker --> The whisker of a cat; A whisker of a cat; A cat whisker

The fact that whiskers is plural drives the article a to the cat, since it is the only singular word in the phrase.

Try rephrasing A women's magazine in a similar manner:

A women's magazine --> A magazine of women; A magazine for women

The article a applies to magazine since it is the only singular word in the sentence.

Additionally:

A wolves' den --> A den of wolves; A den for wolves

A girl's school --> A school for girls; A school of girls;

An interesting magazine --> A magazine that is interesting

If the article used is the, then the sentence becomes more specific and different rules apply.

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    No. this is wrong, or rather, only half of the story: it accounts for a but not for the. The women's magazine is actually ambiguous: it could mean the magazine belonging to particular women, or a magazine for women in general. There are two semantically different analyses, depending on whether the possessor is specific or not. If so, then there cannot be an article attaching to the possessed because it is already specified, so any article present must attach to the possessor, if that is grammatical. With a general possessor, any article must attach to the possessed. – Colin Fine Nov 4 '15 at 19:31
  • I did not address the because most of the example phrases use a. Edited. – Snapman Nov 4 '15 at 20:16
  • @ColinFine Even the a cat's whisker is potentially ambiguous because you could have Two otter's whiskers and a cat's whisker referring to the type of whisker involved and I pulled out a cat's whiskers the other day (not that I condone torturing felines). – Araucaria Mar 16 '16 at 16:31
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The article ‘a’ or ‘an’ as you have noted is bound to a singular noun, i.e. ‘magazine’ and ‘den’ in the paragraph above. In the former example, “women’s" and "wolves’” while nouns themselves, are modifying the principle noun to which the article must refer. As soon as that principle noun is pluralized, i.e. ‘magazine’ and ‘dens’ the article is omitted altogether. In the earlier examples “Peter’s book” and "cat’s whiskers” you ably answered your own initial question.

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My answer is an expansion to the one already mentioned. In the example: "a Peter's book", the book belongs to Peter. In the example: "a women's magazine", the magazine belongs to a publication entity not to women. We refer to it as "women's magazine" probably because it deals with issues relating to women. In the example "a wolves 'den" the word "den" is descriptive of wolves.

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    What makes you think "den" is descriptive of wolves? Don't you think den could belong to the wolves? Your answer has been posted by another user and doesn't provide any additional information. Please take the tour and visit our help center to see how it works here. – user140086 Dec 24 '15 at 17:31
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The use of articles within a language is largely idiomatic. Having spent years teaching English as a second language (ESL) and being fully fluent in three languages, I can attest that the rules for the use of articles are not hard and fast or at all clear. For example, to someone whose native tongue doesn't employ articles, like Russian, it's difficult to understand what the even means. On the other hand, when it comes to a language that is fraught with articles, like Portuguese, in which one frequently says things like, "the his book," it's English speakers who become the ones scratching their heads and not understanding why sometimes in Portuguese a speaker says, "the his book," and other times a speaker just says, "his book," without the article.

The question you bring up is an excellent one and exactly the same question that many ESL students bring up time and again, but I'm sorry to report that there's no clear, concise answer after you've learned the basics, which you obviously already have. What's true of one situation won't hold true for another, e.g., shifting from "a girl's school" to "a girls' school." It's not at all simple, and the only way to learn it isn't by memorizing rules but by remembering syntax, by listening and saying it how other native speakers say it. There really is no other way. I wish I had a better answer for you, but this is the only answer there is, the only answer that I know by experience is true.

P.S. I will say this: You would seldom ever place an article before a possessive proper noun. In as much as one may properly say, "a wolves' den," or say, "a cat's whiskers," one would almost never say, "the Peter's book." The only exception would be in the somewhat unusual circumstance of using the to pointedly indicate the particular Peter one means instead of another Peter. For example: "When I said this is Joe Walsh's guitar, I meant this is the Joe Walsh's guitar, as in the Joe Walsh who wrote 'Hotel California,' the Joe Walsh from the band The Eagles, not just some random guy named Joe Walsh." In cases such as this, the is almost always pronounced with a long E like "thee," not like the is traditionally pronounced with a shchwa sound at the end.

  • Whoever sings "Hotel California" uses a long E in the phrase "Welcome to the Hotel California," by the way. I always though that the point of that pronunciation was to make the desk clerk (or whoever was supposed to be saying the words) sound like a nonnative English speaker. – Sven Yargs Jan 8 '16 at 20:46
  • @Sven Yargs : Because of your name, I'm not quite sure if you're joking. But I'm pretty sure that you are, and rather cleverly too, given how you came up with a reference to the Eagles saying "the" like "thee." It makes me wonder if my choice to use them in my example was somehow subconsciously guided. Doubtful, though. That would make my subconscious mind much, much savvier than I think it actually is. So I tip my hat to you, good sir. Well done! – Benjamin Harman Jan 9 '16 at 13:00

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