This question comes up very often in my language classes, as this particular construction more closely resembles the way you would indicate possession in Dutch. Many of my students use 'the X of Y' rather than 'the Y's X' to indicate possession (meaning they would answer "the car of my dad" instead of "my dad's car" when prompted to indicate possession in some way) because in Dutch you would say "de auto van mijn vader" (which turns into "the car of my dad" when literally translated).

The problem is that my students have (rightfully) remarked that there are times where you would use that construction to indicate possession of some kind, but both my colleagues and I can't come to a conclusive answer as to when you would do that. This particular issue has been haunting my classes for the entire school year, and I would like to be able to offer a conclusive answer to my students the next time this comes up.

Thanks in advance!

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    I think "X's Y"' indicates Y belongs to X, whereas in many cases (but not all), the "X of Y" indicates X belongs to Y. The "Bishop of Canterbury" is from it; he is of it; he belongs to "the set of people from Canterbury". Similarly for the Knights of the Round Table. But not so for "the car of my dad". – Dan Bron Jun 16 '16 at 13:29
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    To my ear, the X of Y form is very formal - e.g. "Desk of the Director". On the other hand, the Y's X form is informal "Dad's car". Compare when these are swapped: "Director's desk" and "Car of the Dad". (Also, of can be used in multiple ways as Dan Bron observed. Here's another example: pen of the student vs student of the pen.) – Lawrence Jun 16 '16 at 13:37

The "x of y" construction is not genitive (possessive). "Of y" is just a complement of "x". By contrast, "x's y" is genitive.

Sometimes though the meaning is the same; for example in the father of the bride the relationship of the bride to father is the same as in the bride's father, but the syntactic difference is considerable. In the latter, the bride's is genitive determiner, but of the bride is just a complement of the father.


I'm sure you will see that in the phrase "Knights of the round table", it would be strange to use the "Y's X" form as that would become "The round table's knights" And it is ridiculous to suggest that a table can possess people. The table does not "own" the knights. In this case, "of" does not actually indicate ownership, but simply correlation. So it means "The knights associated with the round table". Most often this is seen when talking about a person being from or living in a certain place. For example, "Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest", "President of America", "Queen of England" , or "People of Egypt". However, it can be extended further than this.

A particularly good example is this: in the Lord of The Rings we hear "ring of power". Now the ring possesses the power, not the other way round, so this cannot mean "The power's ring" - it must mean "the ring that is associated with power"

EDIT: It should be noted that ownership is also a correlation, and so can be, but rarely is used in the sense of one possessing the other.


"The X of Y" and "Y's X" mean the same thing. It's much more common to say "Y's X". I think the main reasons to use "the X of Y" are:

(a) Because it "sounds better". If Y ends with an "s" sound, putting an apostrophe-s on it can sound awkward. "The car of Jones" is a little smoother to say than "Jones's car". Or it may give the sentence a better rhythm.

(b) "X of Y" tends to sound more formal. I think you see it used more for names of prestigious people and organizations. "The president of the United States" rather than "the U.S.'s president". (Maybe a bad example, as if we use an apostrophe-s we normally say "America's president". I'm sure Brazillians and Argentines and so on say, "Hey, he's not MY president.")

(c) It may shift emphasis. In English we often try to arrange or reword a sentence to put the most important thing later. "I gave the box to Bob" tends to emphasize that it was Bob who received it. "The box was given to Bob by me" emphasizes that it was I who gave it. Similary "Bob's box" emphasizes "box", while "the box of Bob" emphasizes "Bob".

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