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In this sentence:

  • Jane's roof was destroyed in the tornado.

The roof is not actually Jane's, it is the roof of Jane's house.

What does grammar tell us?

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    What makes you think that the roof isn't Jane's? – JavaLatte Apr 28 '17 at 16:59
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    The roof certainly belongs to Jane, so that makes it "Jane's roof". Possession in English can refer to many things, like physical attachment ("the door's handle"), legal ownership ("Fred's briefcase"), or membership ("Lucy's home town"). – stangdon Apr 28 '17 at 17:05
  • Jane's hat was blown off by the tornado. Is it still her hat? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 28 '17 at 18:22
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A grammatical possessive can have many shades of meaning.

In this case, if Jane owns the house, presumably she owns the roof on that house, so it is "Jane's roof" in the very literal sense of possession.

A possessive can indicate a physical attachment. You say that the roof is really "the house's roof". That is certainly a valid thing to say, as the roof is attached to the house and is part of the house.

We use a possessive for all sorts of human relationships. Occasionally you hear a feminist object to the phrase "my wife" on the grounds that it implies that her husband owns her and she is property. But this is nonsense. Women say "my husband" as often as men say "my wife". I say "my mother" and "my brother" and "my uncle" and I certainly don't think I "own" those people in any sense. For that matter, a slave might well say "my master", indicating the exact opposite of ownership.

Almost any sort of relationship or association might be conveyed by a possessive. "Jane's company", "Jane's city", "Jane's favorite ice cream flavor", etc.

Without context, it is difficult to say what a possessive means.

"Jane's car" might mean the car that Jane owns because she bought and paid for it. It might mean the car that the company owns and that Jane is using in the course of her job. It might mean the car that Jane invented. It might mean the car that Jane is riding in at the moment, as in, "Which is Jane's car?" "Oh, she's riding with Bob." If Jane is an auto mechanic it might mean the car that she is working on right now, as in, "Which is Jane's car?" "She's doing the break job on the 2003 Toyota." I could come up with dozens of other possible relationships.

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The grammatical sense of possession does not imply the ownership of something in legal terms. You're thinking too much into it. When you say something like the book's cover or the house's roof, what is typically meant is that there is a relationship of one thing belonging to another as if being in possession of that another thing.

So, when we say that Jane's roof was destroyed in the tornado, the most logical inference one could make from a statement like this is that the root of the house where Jane lives was destroyed by the tornado. You could argue that maybe that's not what you meant. Maybe what really happened was that Jane bought roof materials at a hardware store, left them at a bus stop and they were later destroyed by a tornado and her house has nothing to do with it. Well, remember grammar does not equal semantics. If that's what you meant, then you should have used a more precise description of the situation to convey the idea.

  • The possessive can refer to legal possession or simple possession. But it has other meanings as well. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 28 '17 at 18:24
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"John's football team" could mean variously the team he plays for, the team he owns, the team he manages, or the team of which he is a supporter. It could also simply be the one he picked out in a sweepstake as to who would win a particular tournament.

One thing that a "possessive" does not confirm is "legal possession". This is especially evident with abstract nouns, such as "Smith's absence (was a handicap to the team)". He doesn't own the notion of "absence".

And "Parkinson's disease" is not a disease from which Parkinson is suffering but one which he identified and codified a long time ago.

In the village in which I live there may be a spot called "Molly Porter's corner". Molly Porter may have died 100 years ago, but the place is still identified as "Molly Porter's corner".

  • +1 for good examples. The possessive doesn't confirm legal possession but that is certainly one of its meanings. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 29 '17 at 10:13

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