I was told not to use contractions in an essay.

My classmate wrote "the argument of Emily" but I preferred "Emily's argument". He disagreed and claimed "Emily's" is a contraction.

  • I would suggest that (in this instance, and notwithstanding nico's first sentence) it is a possessive not a contraction – Andrew Nov 4 '12 at 10:56
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    Your friend is probably confused by the apostrophe. Not everything with an apostrophe is a contraction! – JSBձոգչ Nov 4 '12 at 12:45
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    JSBձոգչ, It was exactly my point too. – caxekis Nov 5 '12 at 5:08

"Emily's" can be a contraction – like when you're saying:

Emily's going with us tomorrow.

However, you've used a possessive, which is not the same thing as a contraction.

Remember, if you've used a contraction, you should be able to split the word back into two:

Emily is going with us tomorrow.

But you can't do that with "Emily's argument."

So, I could say:

Your friend's wrong.

or, I could say:

Your friend's argument is wrong.

but I'd only be using a contraction in the first case.

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Well, if one wanted to be very picky, Emily's argument is a contraction of the Old English possessive form -es.

However, unlike the case of something like:

Emily's a nice girl

which would be a contraction of

Emily is a nice girl

the 's is now considered just a suffix and is not really a contraction of any modern English word.

Wikipedia reports:

In Old English, -es was the ending of the genitive singular of most strong declension nouns and the masculine and neuter genitive singular of strong adjectives. The ending -e was used for strong nouns with Germanic ō-stems, which constituted most of the feminine strong nouns, and for the feminine genitive singular form of strong adjectives. In Middle English the -es ending was generalised to the genitive of all strong declension nouns. By the sixteenth century, the remaining strong declension endings were generalised to all nouns. The spelling -es remained, but in many words the letter -e- no longer represented a sound. In those words, printers often copied the French practice of substituting an apostrophe for the letter e. In later use, -'s was used for all nouns where the /s/ sound was used for the possessive form, and the -e- was no longer omitted. Confusingly, the -'s form was also used for plural noun forms. These were derived from the strong declension -as ending in Old English. In Middle English, the spelling was changed to -es, reflecting a change in pronunciation, and extended to all cases of the plural, including the genitive. Later conventions removed the apostrophe from subjective and objective case forms and added it after the -s in possessive case forms.

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    Plus apostrophe-s has been reanalysed as something that goes at the end of the entire NP: a friend of mine’s car. – tchrist Nov 4 '12 at 11:35
  • @tchrist: good point! – nico Nov 4 '12 at 11:44

I was taught that adding 's to create the possessive of a proper noun is a contraction of adding the word his. Before this creation of the possessive contraction, "Bob's hat" was expressed "Bob, his hat."

The 's possessive is only properly used with a third person proper noun. This is why instead of it's we have its; instead of I's, my; them's, their; you's, your. This is also why we don't use the 's possessive with inanimate objects; a proper noun is a person, place or organization, not a thing.

That's why it can seem awkward to show the possessive-like relationship between things. We should not say "the car's door," but say "the car door," or construct a seemingly stilted phrase like, "the door of the car."

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    There's some incorrect information here. The "X his Y" construction is quite unlikely to be the origin of the "X's Y" possessive construction. The possessive pronoun "his" is only used with masculine possessors (or in older forms of the language, inanimate possessors) but the "X's Y" construction is used with feminine possessors as well. Wikipedia has an article on the "his genitive" and it says it is probably a reanalysis of the genitive case suffix -(e)s. It's also wrong to say that "we don't use the 's possessive with inanimate objects." – herisson Sep 4 '16 at 20:09
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    You should add some references for this. It seems to me this idea may have been created as a teaching aid, and was not the origin of the construct. – Laurel Sep 4 '16 at 20:16
  • More discussion here: wmjasco.blogspot.com/2011/08/… It looks like the "X his Y" construction may have influenced the use of an apostrophe in spelling the "X's Y" construction. – herisson Sep 4 '16 at 20:35
  • Thanks for the reference. My English teacher was very knowledgeable and made the point that "X his Y" was not a usage reminder and was the creation of "X's Y" and may only be used when referring to a person or group of people. – Timothy Priddy Sep 5 '16 at 3:03
  • Also, regarding "X her Y", once "X's Y" was in use "X his Y" and "X her Y" both declined in usage. – Timothy Priddy Sep 5 '16 at 3:10

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