A. [This boy]’s hat is cute.

B. This [boys’ hat] is cute.

In sentence A, "this" modifies "boy," and in sentence B, "this" modifies "boy's hat," as the brackets show.


What is this potential ambiguity called? Is it an issue with possessives?

Is this ambiguity solved merely by the placement of the apostrophe in such cases?

  • Thank you for your comment. However, this is not about any boy or hat; it is about an inherent structural ambiguity, in general. "Boy" and "hat" are simply dummy terms to fill grammatical categories, like in algebra. Perhaps then it would have been clearer if I had said something like: A. [This A]'s Q is Y; B. This [A's Q] is Y. – curious-proofreader Nov 10 '15 at 12:33
  • How about using a possessive noun in common use: "pitcher's mound". If I tell the groundskeeper "Move this pitcher's mound," even if a specific pitcher is standing next to me, he won't parse it "(this pitcher's) mound", since individual pitchers do not own their own mounds. Now if I said "Move this pitcher's glove," he'd look to see whose it was, because a "pitcher's glove" is not a "thing"; pitchers don't wear special gloves. However, catchers do wear special gloves; if I switched to "catcher's glove," then problem; it could be either! Context often guides, but sometimes, it's ambiguous. – Steven Littman Nov 11 '15 at 2:42

It is only ambiguous when spoken. When read in text, there is a clear distinction between a case of a singular possessive noun [This boy's hat]; And the second case which is an example of a plural possessive adjectival-noun [This boys' hat]. [Boys'] is no longer the object being modified by [This] because it has taken the function of an adjective and is used, here, to describe what type of hat (a hat for boys as opposed to a hat for girls, for instance). Since we're using the plural of boys as our adjectival noun, which ends in the letter ess, we can't very well tack on an ['s] to indicate possession without making it look even more ridiculous -- [This boys's hat]. That just doesn't sound phonetically appealing -- so we just drop the second [s] and leave it at [s'] to indicate a plural noun (pretending to be an adjective) in its possessive form (also applies to singular nouns that happen to end with the letter [s] and their possessive forms).

I don't know that we call this type of ambiguity anything since, again, it's only phonetically ambiguous... Which I suppose would make it a

homophone - a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning, and may differ in spelling.

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