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So I was reading a post explaining a quote on ELU when I saw this sentence: "Caliban is indeed a character in a Shakespeare play."

So my question is: Shouldn't the suffix 's be used on Shakespeare in this sentence? Wouldn't "Caliban is indeed a character in a Shakespeare's play" be the grammatically correct form?

If I'm wrong, could someone explain in a simple way to me when I should and shouldn't use the suffix -s, or redirect me to a post addressing that issue?

Btw, the sentence was found in this post: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/175668/an-explanation-of-the-preface-in-the-picture-of-dorian-gray.

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The problem there is the presence of the article "a": "a" refers to "play", and if 's were used, it would wrongly seem to refer to "Shakespeare". Compare with:

  • I went to the party in a friend's car. (This means: the car of a friend, which proves that the article before a noun in the genitive or possessive case will refer to that noun, and NOT to the noun that follows, "car" in this case.)

In the phrase you have spotted, "Shakespeare" is being used attributively, that is, as if it were an adjective. Other ways in which you could express that phrase are:

  • a play by Shakespeare
  • one of Shakespeare's plays
  • a Shakespearean play

Only proper names belonging to famous people can be used attributively (otherwise, 's will be required). This is because, being famous, the use of their name designates a type, not just the owner or the author. Another example is the Marshall plan, where "the" refers to "plan", not to "Marshall".

Note: 's is not a suffix, but an inflectional marker of the genitive case. We use the term "suffix" to refer to components which, added to a word, change its class or category. For example, -an is a suffix which, added to the noun "Shakespeare", results in the adjective "Shakespearean".

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  • Okay... I think I'm following. I just have one doubt left. So, since "Shakespeare" is being used attributively here, is it basically the same as using the adjective "Shakespearean"? Oct 22, 2017 at 1:09
  • @ViníciusMartins Yes, it is similar to "Shakespearean", but not exactly the same, because "Shakespearean" might be used to mean "like the ones written by Shakespeare but not actually written by him". If "Shakespeare" is used, there is no doubt that Shakespeare wrote the play.
    – Gustavson
    Oct 22, 2017 at 1:13
  • A useful contemporary test is with the pop group "Queen", where you would say "a Queen album", not *a Queen's album".
    – BillJ
    Oct 22, 2017 at 7:39
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In this situation, using "Shakespearean" instead of "Shakespeare" means the same thing because the speaker stated that

"Caliban is indeed a character in a Shakespeare play."

Although I think, even without the word "indeed", the sentence is clear enough to make the difference because it doesn't say,

"Caliban is like a character in a Shakespearean play."

You could just change it so that the suffix -'s be incorporated and correct:

"Caliban is indeed a character in Shakespeare's play."

Notice though that you have to drop the indefinite article "a" then if you should write it this way.

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  • Hmmm... So dropping the article and using the -s would be grammatically correct, but wouldn't it make the sentence kind of "vague"? I mean, Shakespeare has written lots of plays. Is there some way to use the suffix -s without losing part of the meaning? Oct 22, 2017 at 11:35
  • It is vague in any of the three ways shown above. It's not vague if I say, "Caliban is indeed a character in Shakespeare's play, 'The Tempest'." or "Caliban is indeed a character in the Shakespearean play, 'The Tempest'." or "Caliban is indeed a character in a Shakespeare play called, 'The Tempest'."
    – Nick
    Oct 22, 2017 at 16:06

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