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I've just been told my current understanding of possessives is ungrammatical, it was noticed in this sentence

The iPhone has been the most successfully sold Apple 's product

and I was advised to use it this way

The most successfully sold of Apple’s products.
The most successfully sold Apple product.
The most successful of Apple’s products.
The most successful Apple product.

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get my head around it but I was told it might be due to the absence of cases in English in comparison to my primary language(Latvian).

So, why is it ungrammatical to use possessive in this example?

  • 3
    Great question. I've tried to answer this a couple of times now and have failed each time with a 'Yes,but..." clause. The advice that the OP has been given is clearly correct. It's one of those things that is perfectly obvious to to a native English speaker but very difficult to put into writing. – PerryW Sep 23 '16 at 3:18
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    I agree. The advice you were given, Oscar, is completely correct, but it's very hard to explain exactly why. The best thing I can say is that "Apple's product" is a possessive, while "Apple product" uses Apple as a kind of attributive noun. In a sentence like "X is the Y-est Z", Z has to be a noun or noun phrase, but not a possessive...unless you use "of"! But I can't explain why, exactly - that's just the way it is. – stangdon Sep 23 '16 at 14:07
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    "The iPhone has been Apple's most successfully sold product." At least part of the problem is that the genitive "Apple's" is a determiner, as is the definite article. You can't have both "the" and "Apple's" attached to the same word (product) in the same way. – Gary Botnovcan Sep 24 '16 at 1:22
  • Excellent question -- it has made me question my own intuition as a native speaker! – leoger Sep 27 '16 at 19:18
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    The key idea is we don't say the Apple's product (or an Apple's product) in the meaning of the Apple product (or an Apple product) because in English, it would be read as [ [ the Apple ] 's product ] (or [ [ an Apple ] 's product ]) rather than [ the [ Apple 's product ] ] (or [ an [ Apple 's product ] ]). -- This is one of the most common mistakes among learners. – Damkerng T. Sep 27 '16 at 21:16
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+500

The rules governing adjective order can seem technical and even esoteric, but there's a simple rule that is not in dispute: the determiner comes first. A determiner is strictly speaking not an adjective, but can look sufficiently like one that it is included in the "Royal Order of Adjectives":

The nine categories—in order from those farthest from the noun when multiple adjectives are used to those closest to the noun—with examples—

Determiner—articles (a, an, the), possessives (your, his, her, my, their, our), number (ten, several, some), demonstratives (this, that, those, these)

In our case, Apple's is a possessive determiner, just like their or its. Indeed, you can substitute "their products" or "its products" for "Apple's products."

With that in mind, it's easy to see why "the most successfully sold Apple's product" doesn't work. You would never say "the most successfully sold their product," would you?

The substitution also makes clear why this suggested construction works:

  • the most successful of Apple’s products
  • the most successful of their products

With the phrase broken up by "of," the determiner once again comes first among the modifiers of its noun (there's only one modifier in this case, but if you were to add "post-1990," for example, you'd put it after the determiner.)

In the other suggested construction, Apple sheds the apostrophe s and, in doing so, goes from a determiner, which comes first, to an attributive noun, which comes last according to the Royal Order. Now "Apple" must always remain right in front of "product" no matter how you modify the noun. (See "bumper" in "the best-selling small political bumper sticker.") That is the case in our construction, so it is also correct.

  • the most successful Apple product

There is no attributive noun form for their, so no substitution here.

Your editor friend left out one alternative construction, the simplest one in fact:

  • Apple's most successful product
  • their most successful product

See how the determiners come first?

Lastly, I should tell you that "most successfully sold" sounds awkward. I'd say "most successful" (as suggested) or "best-selling" instead, although this has nothing to with the grammatical question at hand. You can use your original adjectival phrase and everything I wrote here still applies.

  • the most successfully organized trade union vs the most successfully organized People's Party? – Man_From_India Sep 28 '16 at 17:07
  • @Man_From_India Not sure I get your point. Your first example is just like "the most successful Apple product" and hence already covered. Your second example is a bit odd because "People's Party" is normally a proper noun and thus cannot be a type. If you want to use the phrase as a common noun to refer to any political party the world over that names itself "People's Party" (even though they have little else in common), then fine. But "People's" is no longer the determiner in that case. In your example, "the" is. The rule still holds. – bongbang Sep 28 '16 at 17:34
  • okay, what about "a newly built children's museum"? – Man_From_India Sep 30 '16 at 7:05
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    @Man_From_India Same. The way you use it here, "children's" is not a possessive determiner. It's just part of the noun, like "Adam's" in Adam's apple. You can have a large Adam's apple, but Adam can't have a large his apple or a his large apple because the article and the possessive are mutually exclusive. In your example, "a" is the determiner. – bongbang Sep 30 '16 at 7:41
  • Would it also be ungrammatical to say "Apple artist's certificate is issued only..." because if I replace "artist's" it becomes "Apple his certificate..."? – Oscar Oct 23 '16 at 17:09
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I will try to take a different approach from the other (very good) answers, which I hope will help to build your intuition. (I am not a linguist by training so I have surely used some terms incorrectly. Feedback is welcome!)

Specific objects vs. abstract category

To start, let's remember that we can refer to specific things or categories of things. We can talk about this dog, which may be one we see on the street. We can also talk about dogs, which is not specific but rather abstract. It represents some category of things.

But there can be something in the middle, as well!

If I have two dogs at home as pets, we can say his dogs and it will refer to a group of specific objects. Also, the dogs that are his pets means the same thing. It is easier to see in the 2nd form that we are being specific because we see the word the. What if we want to talk about the abstract category of dogs that I might have now or in the future? We can simply remove the word the and use the phrase dogs that are his pets. (This is an unusual phrase because it is very rare that we would want to talk about such a thing as a category.)

The most successful...

Now, when we talk about something as "the most successful" we are naming some specific item from a category or group. If we say She is the most successful student, the category is understood to be "all of the students". Or we can say She is the most successful of students, which case we have explicitly given the category and it is understood that she is one of the students.

Now let's look at the examples from your question. (I will use the second form, "successful", because it is simpler but the same reasoning applied.)

  • Apple's product is naming one thing. It's abstract, because we don't know which specific product you're talking about, but it's not a category.
  • Apple's products is a specific group, like his dogs. This is subtle and not very intuitive, but the distinction exists in our language. Sorry!
  • Apple products is naming a category, the same way that small dogs is.
  • Apple product is referring to a single example from an abstract category Apple products, the same way that small dog refers to a single example from the category small dogs.

So, where does this leave us? We can say any one of the following forms, where the part inside [ ] is left implied.

  • The most successful Apple product [from the category of Apple products.]
  • The most successful [Apple product from the category] of Apple products.
  • The most successful [Apple product from the specific group] of Apple's products.
  • 2
    Your use of "abstract" is not consistent. In "It's abstract, because we don't know which specific product you're talking about" you are essentially equating "abstract" with "non-specific", but that's not entirely correct. – eques Sep 27 '16 at 21:39
  • This is not right. The simple answer is that you get only one determiner per noun phrase, not two. – tchrist Sep 28 '16 at 19:33
  • @tchrist Well, if you count numbers and words like every and other as determiners, as some dictionaries do, then there can be more than one, as in "my other two (big, fat, Greek) meals." These words all come before (other) adjectives, but they are not mutually exclusive and may need a tie-breaker. – bongbang Sep 29 '16 at 3:05
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The iPhone has been the most successfully sold Apple 's product

It's an odd quirk in the English language. In this case "Apple" is best used as a simple adjective, and not a possessive adjective. For example, "My wife uses only Apple products" is correct English, where "Apple" is an adjective modifying "products" -- products made by the Apple corporation.

So, "The iPhone is the most successful Apple product," is what you want to use.

However the quirky part is that if you include "of" it's OK. It's fine to say, "The iPhone is the most successful of Apple's products."

Both sentences mean nearly the same thing.

By the way "successfully sold" is used when talking about a person or business who sells things, "He successfully sold ten cars in one day," meaning "he was successful in selling ten cars in one day." Products are simply "sold" or "successful" since they can't succeed in selling themselves.

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    " Products are simply "sold" or "successful" since they can't succeed in selling themselves" I'm not sure I agree with that point. It's a passive sentence so it stands to reason that the adverb is also interpreted passively (i.e. the manner it was sold) – eques Sep 27 '16 at 21:31
  • @eques good point. – Andrew Sep 27 '16 at 21:32
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    Apple is never an adjective in any of these; it's a noun used attributively which certainly does not make it an adjective! Nouns can modify nouns in English. The bottom line is you only get one determiner slot to fill per noun phrase, and both the and Apple’s are determiners. – tchrist Sep 28 '16 at 19:33
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This is a very common case, in English, of using a noun as an adjective.

Some examples

  • dog treat

  • cat toy

  • building block

  • rifle stock

  • paper plane

However, your example is using a proper noun, Apple. Apple is a company, a business, therefore it is a place, therefore it is a noun.

A Proper Adjective

Some other examples of proper adjectives being used:

  • Dad joke

  • Chinese soup

  • American cheese

  • Microsoft software

If we slap a punctuation mark onto those proper nouns, they lose their Adjective purpose and Adjective function.

Dad's joke.

By itself, that makes sense. But, if we arrange it to be similar to your example, we'll arrive at the same issue.

That is the funniest Dad's joke (incorrect)

The proper noun can't be both possesive and act as an adjective.

In the above example, "Dad's" might be understood to mean that the joke is possessed by Dad, or that the joke is intended only for Dads. It's still ungrammatical though, and would cause any native speaker to pause at the sight of the punctuation mark while reading it. To be grammatically correct and keep posession, you'd have to write

That is the funniest joke of Dad's.


Consider the differences:

That is Atlanta's coffee.

vs

That is Atlanta coffee.

The first example clearly identifies the coffee as being owned by Atlanta, or created by Atlanta.

The second example labels and describes the coffee. The second example usage is truly an adjective. You can replace the word "Atlanta" with any adjective in the English language and it will always be grammatically correct.

  • bad coffee

  • green cofee

  • generous coffee

  • exhaustive coffee


So, when you use this sentence:

The iPhone has been the most successfully sold Apple product

...you are implying and communicating that the product was merely created by Apple; it doesn't mean that Apple owns the product.

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The original sentence sounds clumsy

The iPhone has been the most successfully sold Apple's product

The adjectival phrase, most successfully sold product, is the sticking point in the OP's example, the word order needs to be changed.

The iPhone has been Apple's most successfully sold product.

Apple is the possessor of "product"; e.g., Apple's product.

We can describe the noun by using the past participle of a verb, the OP chose sold; e.g. Apple's sold product

We can modify sold, the OP chose the adverb successfully; e.g., Apple's successfully sold product

We can say further modify the phrase by adding the determiner most; e.g., Apple's most successfully sold product.

However, I'm not keen about "successfully sold", something is either sold or it isn't, a product cannot be "more successfully sold" than another "sold product". As other users have suggested, the idiomatic expression best selling conveys the same meaning, or we could reduce the original adjective phrase: the most successfully sold to most successful.

The adjectival phrase (adjective phrase) should precede the noun, product

The iPhone has been Apple's best selling product

The iPhone has been Apple's most successful product.

  • "successfully sold" may be less commonly used, but it's not wrong. An individual specific item either is sold or not (states) but as a category, an item may sell well or sell poorly (usual expressions). Something that sells well, it could be said to "sell successfully" – eques Sep 28 '16 at 17:44
  • @eques You are right, but I was very careful not to say "successfully sold" was wrong. I said, I wasn't keen about the expression, and I explained why. – Mari-Lou A Sep 28 '16 at 17:48
  • It's more I questioned the reasoning of "something is either sold or it isn't, a product cannot be "more successfully sold" than another "sold product"." – eques Sep 28 '16 at 17:49
  • @eques question of interpretation. A company can sell more products than another. But every product sold, has been "successfully" sold, otherwise it would still be unsold. – Mari-Lou A Sep 28 '16 at 18:04
  • That's why I mentioned the concept of category. We can refer to a specific individual iPod as a "product" but we can also refer to the concept of an iPod as a "product"; e.g. "Apple currently has 5 products in their iPhone line" compared to "Apple sold 150,000 iPhone products last month". For the latter, your point is correct; mine was about the former use. – eques Sep 28 '16 at 18:16
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Apple product / Apple's product — both are possible as 'Apple' here functions as classifying adjective with or without genitive inflection. We have to locate where the shoe pinches : It is in the use of superlative degrees which both adjectives and adverbs lay claim on. The superlative with ' most ' is sometimes used when there is no ideas of comparison, but merely a desire to indicate a quality in a very high degree. As

  • You're most welcome. ( Most in bare form without The)

Even it can have an "A" replacing ' the '.

  • It is a most eloquent speech.

In your first (ungrammatical) sentence the concept of comparison is missing. iPhone is one of Apple's products . Separate it from the rest of Apple products / Apple's products. You see, the possessive inflection does not pose much of a problem. All the correct examples in the post either remove the sense of comparison where it is discordant or interweave sense of comparison where necessary.

You can as well go without 'the' in your second and fourth examples or replace ' the ' by an 'A' ; they would equally be correct and meaningful.

You are misinformed that there are no cases in English. The 's you're referring relalates to possessive case. Moreover there are nominatives (subject), objectives (object) and vocatives. Great masters of English have made it simple for our understanding.


Here is a modest attempt at explaining as to why the first example is incorrect. We know that possessive nouns are determiners. They mark nouns like adjectives, articles and numerics. In a major departure from other determiners, possessives themselves often require determiners and become the governing word of the noun governed. When an adjective precedes the possessive, the adjective's power of limitation may extend over the possessive as well. The adjective ( sold) together with (the most successfully ) goes to mean the governing word 'Apple's', not the word governed , Product/(s). In the compound word, Apple product(s), we don't run that risk of improper marking. Hence

  • Of Apple's products, or

  • Products of Apple.

  • There area at most two cases and only for pronouns (nominative and oblique). Talking about vocatives as if were a case is stretching and possession is not indicated by case (anymore). The superlative is not the relative part. If you replaced "The most successfully sold"/"The most successful" with "My favorite", it would have the same issues with whether Apple or Apple's is acceptable. – eques Sep 27 '16 at 21:35
  • @ eques I was referring to the case division of olden days, but things have since changed. I still persist it is not a case of possessive inflection,a point I have attempted to explain in a post here in our site about " police conspiracy or police's conspiracy ". – Barid Baran Acharya Sep 28 '16 at 4:18
  • "You are misinformed that there are no cases in English." You talk about cases as though English currently has them. It doesn't add anything useful to the answer and is inaccurate. – eques Sep 28 '16 at 11:22
  • @eques English has its cases you have admitted; they are not meant for pronouns alone. we call them differently doesn't make them meaningless. Isn't this fuss of Apple's case related? However thanks for your assessment of my answer. – Barid Baran Acharya Sep 28 '16 at 12:28
  • If all forms of the noun are identical, it's meaningless to speak of cases. The only case where there are cases is for pronouns where they do contrast nominative from oblique (e.g. we vs us or he vs him) – eques Sep 28 '16 at 13:36
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A Noun Phrase (NP) can have a plain case or a genitive case.

  • Man [PLAIN CASE]

  • Man's [GENITIVE CASE]

Though genitive case generally means possession, but it doesn't in all cases. Consider the followings -

  • Henry's father.

  • Henry's car.

In both cases the determiner position of the NP is filled by a Genitive NP - Henry's. In the first case - Henry's father - the use of genitive doesn't imply the possession as it does for the second case - Henry's car.

Generally a genitive NP takes the place of a determiner.

In your sentence -

The iPhone has been the most successfully sold Apple's product.

The NP is - the most successfully sold Apple's product.

[DETthe] [NOMINAL[MODIFIERmost successfully sold] [GENITIVE NPApple's] [HEAD NOUNproduct]]

The genitive NP - Apple's - comes between the head noun and the attributive modifier. That's not the usual place of a determiner. And for that reason it's wrong. Make it correct by changing Apple's to Apple.


In some cases, very limited cases, a genitive NP can take the place of an attributive modifier. But these genitives indicates only human or animal or temporal length. Or in very few fixed expressions.

a strongly build animal's cage.

newly built children's museum.

a beautiful summer's day. [fixed expression, we can't use spring's days etc]

REFERENCE -
1. Cambridge Grammar of English Language. (page no. 469-470)
2. A Student's Introduction of English Grammar. (page no. 109-110)

  • 1
    possession in grammatical terms is not equivalent to possession in legal terms (i.e. "ownership"); thus, it is still typical to refer to an expression like "Henry's father" as showing possession. – eques Sep 28 '16 at 17:41
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    It is likewise not typical to use the term "genitive case" in English grammar to describe possession or genitive expressions. The way "'s" functions in English is not equivalent to how case systems generally function (e.g. the possessive indicator is attached to the last word of the noun phrase, not always to the head noun -- "the king of England's horse"; for a noun case system, we'd expect "The king's of England horse" – eques Sep 28 '16 at 17:41

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