In today’s podcast, I’m going to talk about when to use of and when to use ‘s to express possession.
This episode came about as one of my students, Satomi asked me the following questions:
“How do you differentiate “someone’s something” and “something of someone?” I learnt that you say,
but you never say, “the mother of Mark”, is that correct?
Do you say “listeners’ questions” but not “the questions of listeners’?”
Would you say, “the best places of Tokyo ” but not “Tokyo’s best places?”
Sometimes I get confused, so I hope you could help me with this! Thanks.”
So this is a really good question, thanks, Satomi.
And it’s quite a tricky question to answer.
In fact, there are no clean rules which can be applied in all cases, only some rough guidelines.
So, what I will do is give you a general answer that summarises these guidelines that will work in most cases but not all.
(I’ll include more in-depth detail on my website for those that want to know more.)
Satomi asks, “Why do we prefer, Mark’s mother than the Mother of Mark?”
We usually use ‘s when talking about people, animals, countries, categories, groups or organisations made up of people.
Therefore, we would usually say, “Mark’s mother” not the “mother of Mark”.
Listener’s questions (category/belonging to listeners)
Not – questions of the listeners
Hollywood’s film industry. (Category or an Organisation made up of people)
Tokyo’s best places (Category)
Mickey Mouse’s tail. (Fictional animal)
Not the tail of Mickey Mouse
In general, use of for things that are not living (inanimate objects). When something is not a person, animal, country, organisation, etc.
The middle of the day
Not – the day’s middle
The colours of the rainbow
Not – the rainbow’s colours
Use of when the noun phrase following is very long.
The keys of the last person who had left the office.
Not – The last person who had left the office’s keys.
We do not usually use of when things are to do with people. But remember there are exceptions.
The crew of the ship
The young people of today
The will of the people
illustrators of the future
The nurses of the past
Sometimes either ‘s or of can be used
The year’s best films
The best films of the year
The report’s conclusion
The conclusion of the report (non-living thing)
For the sake of simplicity
For simplicity’s sake
- Sometimes when we first mention a noun, we use of, and later when we refer to it again, we use ’s
The hero of the film was a stranger in a town full of bad dudes terrorising the people. The film’s hero eventually won the hearts of the townsfolk.
For Satomi’s last query, “Do we use the best places of Tokyo or Tokyo’s best places?”
We can say, “Tokyo’s best places…”
But instead of using of, we usually use in for places.
Therefore, we would say “the best places in Tokyo…”
So in brief, use ‘s for people, animals, organisations, and countries and use of for things that are not living.
But there are lots of exceptions and unfortunately no easy way to categorise the exceptions. These will just have to be learnt through reading and exposure to lots and lots of English.
At least, this is what native speakers of English do.
Links to further reading
Some interesting discussions about appropriate use can be found by following the links to English stack exchange website below:
The Apostrophe Protection Society – This website shows where people have made mistakes with the use of the apostrophe. So while not completely on topic this is quite a fun way to see how the apostrophe s is often misused.